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Canada | Next-up, Healthcare spend or Military spend?

Canada | Next-up, Healthcare spend or Military spend? 11/09/14
by John Brian Shannon

According to recent reports which you can read about here and here, the Harper government has plans to increase defence spending and lower healthcare spending in Canada.

King George VI Canadian 2 cents stamp

The 1935 engraved portrait of George VI was prepared for the 2 cent denomination. Image by postalhistorycorner.blogspot.com

One of the sacred roles of the federal government in Canada is the defence of the country — the sovereignty of the air, land and sea inside the country’s boundaries, and to be able to project some amount of force globally in order to secure the safety of our citizens and assets abroad. Not only that, but to also participate in and carry our weight in organizations that we belong to such as the UN and NATO.

Surely our number one asset in meeting our national defence is our military men and women in uniform, whether they are combat soldiers, airmen and airwomen, or Navy personnel. As these people proceed with their mission, the defence of Canada no less(!) we should respect their commitment to the country and its citizens. At any time, they may suddenly be placed in harm’s way which could lead to death or injury, and injuries sustained in battle often prove to be of the horrific kind.

Let us always remember the days, weeks or months that they spend away from the comforts of home and their friends and families.

Much of who we are as a people is due to the fact that we live in one of the safest countries in the world. Granted, ‘The True North Strong and Free’ like all other countries is a work-in-progress. It will never be perfect, but it is likely to be more perfect than anywhere else. A solid contributor to that feeling of security is our armed forces. Oh Canada! Thank you to our military people for that.

Therefore, it behooves us to, at the very least, give our valiant men and women in uniform the tools they need to conduct their operations to keep us safe and secure.

Whether we should have our Navy ships poking the Russian bear in the Black Sea or not, is a different matter. (What’s up with that?) The Navy goes where it is told, and it does the things it is ordered to do. Whether the officers or enlisted people agree with the mission is a complete side issue for them. They will do the job they are asked to do, every time. With. Out. Fail. Even when they know there’s a good chance they might die.

So let’s always give them the tools that they need to perform their roles. After all, they’re doing it for us and under the guidance of the government. When people are laying their lives on the line every day, it is ungrateful in the extreme to disallow them the necessary manpower and materiel to do the job. It’s just not done.

In other countries, it’s not even a question. The United States spends anywhere from 4.7% of GDP to 3.8% of GDP on its military. Some nations spend more than that.

As recently as last week, NATO pointedly asked Prime Minster Harper to increase Canada’s defence spending from 1% of GDP, to 2% of GDP to match the new 2014 NATO requirement of 2% of GDP spending, which all of the other members will now observe. Not one of them will spend less than the 2% minimum (FY2014).

For those of you that haven’t passed military college, it costs 2%-of-GDP to merely maintain an existing military at its existing level of competence.

When you spend more than 2% you can begin to increase ammunition stocks, afford a proper training budget, and possibly begin to fill in some blanks to address those inadequacies in your force.

When you spend less than 2%, you’re going backwards. Broken tanks are simply parked, fighter jets that need engine or other major overhaul are simply parked and training missions are severely curtailed. And all of that can go on for a while.

However, a day of reckoning will appear. Either the government will order the military to fulfill a mission, and the crucial helicopter suddenly won’t fly, or the Navy warship won’t be able to steer, or the troops will find themselves in a combat zone without any food or medicine. “Oops, we canceled that combat food delivery thingy, didn’t we?”

Maybe they could ask the enemy for some food on a ‘pay later’ basis. (Which in military parlance means; organizing a raid on an enemy position or small base — not to capture territory, nor to rescue hostages, but to steal their food. Don’t laugh, it happens. Sometimes soldiers have been killed in past years, because they needed to eat and ‘our side’ failed to deliver. This is done while the CO is busy on the radiophone yelling at some sleepy supply Sergeant 5000 miles away to get us some damn food delivered pronto!)

All of that does not contribute to high morale. Lack of the necessities of life for a military person in the field contributes to low morale, which translates into a lowered ‘will to fight’. Which is everything.

If you can’t give it 100% then you shouldn’t be there. If you can’t keep your physical, mental and equipment/ammo at over 80% effectiveness, you’re going to die alone in a muddy field, or in a dusty desert. Not one out of those three things, not two out of those three things, you need three out of those three things in order to stay alive and carry the battle to the enemy. Remember that Private, it’ll save your life. (Every soldier is told this during training)

Spending less than 2% of GDP annually on a developed world military should be considered low treason at best, and high treason if it results in deaths of soldiers. The case can be made whereby a country can ask a developed country military to get by for one year with a lower than 2% defence budget (in order to hit an overall budget spending threshold — say, 1.8% of GDP for one year only). Doing so is a good way to ‘use up’ spare and aging ammunition (which does have a ‘best before date’ after all) and forces a more ‘conservation of resources’ mindset throughout the rest of the years. Although there may be some grumbling, this is actually a healthy thing. For one year out of ten.

Stephen Harper should do whatever it takes to ram a 2% of GDP military spending bill through Parliament ASAP and it should clearly state that Canada’s military spending must always meet the 2% minimum 9 out of every 10 years. It should be the law.

How to afford it is a completely different matter

If tiny NATO partners like the Netherlands or Denmark can manage 2% of GDP spending, then so can Canada. Whatever it takes, just get it done. It’s that important.

More on how to afford it later

With regards to the planned cuts to Canada’s healthcare spending. Second only to (arguably) the national defence of the country is the health and well-being of Canadian citizens.

If we claim to have universal healthcare (we do) and the federal government wants some say over how provinces administer the provincial healthcare systems, then the federal government must step up and deliver a meaningful level of funding. Either the federal government is a stakeholder, or it isn’t. But under the present paradigm and until that paradigm changes via a national referendum or national election with that as one of the major points of revision for the next elected government, the Harper government is obligated to provide meaningful contributions and guidance to the provinces vis a vis the Canadian healthcare system.

Trying to ‘duck out’ in order to meet some arcane budget target is unacceptable. The Conservatives have to pull themselves up to their full height and meet the challenges of their time just like every other government before them. This is Canada, and this country has a proud history and it has a world-leading healthcare system, thanks to the (so far) unrewarded party of Tommy Douglas which, for all of its contributions to Canada, has never once been rewarded by the voters with a turn in office. Shameful that.

Anyway, until the voters say otherwise, the federal government must meet its healthcare obligations. Not only that, but provinces shouldn’t have to go through a song and dance in order to get what they were promised under the constitution and via the Canadian Health Act, as has been the case for the past few decades.

The Harper government should continue the good work it started when it spoke to the Premiers a few years back about providing solid, bankable, and long-term funding for the provincial healthcare systems. It was a real breath of fresh air when the federal government told provincial leaders that they could expect long term and stable funding in relation to federal healthcare contributions.

The problem, of course, is money

Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul, we need to fund both Canada’s military and the Canadian healthcare system. It is not a case of pay one and not the other. It is a case of both of these are federal government core responsibilities — the defence of the country and the health of its citizens. Not properly funding both is non-negotiable.

Get the money from somewhere

If I was the Prime Minister of Canada, this is what I would do:

  1. Guarantee the Canadian military 2% of GDP for 9 out of 10 years (and they get to choose which year that they want to use up all of their surplus parts, supplies and ammo)
  2. Cut the fat. Inform every federal government department that their budgets are being cut by 5% and that they’re in charge of how those cuts are to be made (no micro-managing by the government). In any organization on the planet, there is always 5% ‘fat’ in the budget from accumulated surpluses, additional efficiencies via technology or other means, combined with accounting benefits such as multiple CCA years. The Canadian military, for obvious reasons would be excluded from the 5% cut.
  3. Increase the GST portion of the HST to 7%. Yes, the Conservatives did extremely well to cut the GST down from 7% to 5% just as they promised to do. And good for them. Heartening to taxpayers was that promise fulfilled! But now, we’d rather have a viable military and restoration of meaningful healthcare funding from the federal government.

Even though admirable in that a federal political party campaigned on a promise and actually kept it (in two stages, beginning with a 1% cut July 1st, 2006 and the second cut January 1st 2008) there is no doubt that it lowered the total amount of revenue that the government took in. Conservatives will tell you that this gradual lowering of revenue forced the government and its various departments to become more efficient (true, that did happen) and that it saved consumers a lot of money (also true).

But they won’t tell you that only by keeping that promise, they gained enough seats to form a majority government, nor will they tell you that only because of that promise kept, some ‘iffy’ ridings continued to be held by Conservatives (sometimes by only a few hundred votes) that otherwise would have been certainly lost, and they won’t tell you that the lowered GST partially stimulated the consumer economy allowing them to look quite the expert money managers in subsequent TV interviews. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that — those are all benefits of keeping your promises, Conservatives.

Lowering the GST proved to be a stroke of genius. But now the time has come where we have to say; “Do we fully support Canada’s military and it’s NATO commitment?” and also; “Do we support fair and long term, stable funding for Canada’s contribution to the health of Canadians?”

And that answer can only be, Yes!

The time has arrived to increase the GST. It’s not a time to shrink back from federal government commitments, it’s the time to boldly move forward with the governments responsibilities and simultaneously cut fat from federal government departments.

Whether that’s what the Conservatives want — it’s what Canada needs. Rise to the twin challenges, Conservatives! Your country needs you!

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