Changing the Guard: Security Decisions Under Paul Martin

What changes, taking place in the new Martin government now, are likely to change the way Canada's security issues are handled?

By Lt. Col. David Last | 2004-04-01 12:00:00

Will the new government of Paul Martin change the way that Canada makes national security decisions? New cabinet committee structures and changes to government departments will affect the way in which information is managed and decisions are made. In most cases, we can expect national security decisions to be more predictable and more centralized.

Do we need a national security council?

Albert Legault's report to the Prime Minister in 1997 rejected the bureaucratization of security outside of political control.1 Legault reflected the understanding that Quebec-Canada relations are central to national security, and that this could only be addressed politically. Political scientist Jane Boulden, now at Canada's Royal Military College, suggested that the benefits of a national security council are dubious, yet the costs would inevitably expand.2

Colonel R.M. Williams, an experienced senior officer with personal knowledge of defence decision-making, echoed Legault's and Boulden's conclusions, arguing in a 2001 paper that there was no need for a national security council, for it violates principles of Canadian-style parliamentary democracy and accountability.3

While the shock of 9/11 did not change the nature of Canadian parliamentary democracy or the policy-making process, it did lead some to rethink the need for on-going attention to national security policy, and much of this attention was focused in the form of institutional advocacy. Colonel C.S. Sullivan, writing less than two years after Colonel Williams, and with much the same experience, argued for a National Command Authority, supported by a National Command Council composed of security stakeholders and subject experts.4 While the bureaucratic reasoning is sound, and supported by organizational theory, Sullivan did not refute the political objections raised by both Boulden and Legault. In fact, during 2002-2003, something that looked very like a national security council did emerge within the Privy Council Office (PCO), and for largely political rather than strategic reasons. Under Prime Minister Chretien, cabinet work was essentially divided between the Cabinet Committees on Social Affairs and on Economic Affairs. Without a cabinet committee to support, the PCO secretariat on foreign and defence affairs commanded comparatively few resources and had little face-time with senior cabinet ministers. But the American-led war on terror, the deployments in Afghanistan and the Gulf, and the demand for decisions about the war in Iraq required decisions with which advisers in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) were uncomfortable. At that time the advice gap was filled by a committee of affected deputy ministers, supported by five analysts of the PCO secretariat for foreign and defence affairs. This secretariat was authorized for direct liaison with the US National Security Council. Typically, the deputy ministers of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, Solicitor General, Transport, and other departments would meet, and their updates and recommendations would be conveyed to Chretien by the clerk of the Privy Council, or to Manley by the deputy clerk.

SARS, Mad Cows, and Forest Fires

Under Chretien, Cabinet was only involved to the extent that the prime minister or deputy prime minister chose to involve individual ministers. The committee of deputy ministers provided a continuous review of security issues, and advised the prime minister and deputy prime minister as executives, rather than advising cabinet as a body. There were direct links to Bush's National Security Advisor and Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge. This arrangement reinforced the parallel Canadian system, but without involving cabinet as a body. While this worked well for predictably evolving policy questions such as involvement in Afghanistan and the Iraq War, it was narrowly focused on traditional foreign and defence issues and did not help with a series of human and economic disasters that hit Canada in 2003. SARS, Mad Cow Disease, power failure, hurricane, and forest fires evoked little coherent federal response or national leadership.

In response to this, Martin's new cabinet structure resurrects Trudeau's Priorities and Planning Committee of 16 ministers and an Operations Committee - an inner circle responsible for day to day management chaired by the deputy prime minister and including only the ministers of Transport, Finance, Health, Treasury Board, and Public Works. These might be expected to formulate federal response to such crises as those that afflicted Canada last year. The leadership for co-ordinating responses, however, would almost certainly come from the Cabinet Committee on Security, Public Health, and Emergency Preparedness (SPHEP), which "manages national security and intelligence issues and activities, and ensures co-ordination of the federal response to all emergencies, including natural disasters, public health, and security." 5

Asymmetrical threats

Nine of the eleven ministers in SPHEP have security-related portfolios: Foreign Affairs, Coast Guard, Transport, Defence, Justice, Immigration, Civil Preparedness, and Public Health. "Security" is defined in broad terms to include both the sort of threats without aggressors that ravaged the Canadian economy last year, and "asymmetric threats" such as illegal immigration, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and cyber attacks. Using the proportion of security-related portfolios within each committee as an assessment criterion, SPHEP is the most closely related to security, both at home and abroad.

Next in importance is the Committee on Canada-US Affairs, with the mandate to ensure an integrated, government-wide approach to Canada-US relations. Chaired by the prime minister, with the minister of foreign affairs as vice-chair, this committee includes the deputy prime minister, and portfolios responsible for transport, defence, justice and immigration. Although trade will be an important dimension of this committee's work, security relations and support to the war on terror and homeland defence will make up a large part of its agenda as the United States moves into a presidential election year.

Canada-US Relations

The Cabinet Committee on Global Affairs, also chaired by Martin, with Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham as vice-chair, will vie with SPHEP and Canada-US Affairs for oversight of international security questions. In practice, the four key ministers (Foreign Affairs, Defence, Immigration, and the prime minister himself) are on both Canada-US Affairs, and SPHEP as well as Global Affairs. One can imagine Pratt of Defence or Cotler of Justice being consulted by the Priorities and Planning Committee and the Operations Committee, as military and police options for domestic or international security are considered. Paul Martin's 12 December release also described new structures in the PMO and PCO that will affect decision-making on security issues. The parliamentary secretary for Canada-US relations can be expected to serve as a conduit to move regional issues, such as the soft-wood lumber dispute, from back benches up onto the cabinet agenda. The Cabinet Committee for Canada-US Affairs will also be supported by a new Canada-US secretariat in the PCO, and a new Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat will support the Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal Affairs (chaired by the prime minister himself). An Aboriginal Affairs Adviser in the PMO will also raise the profile of the aboriginal agenda. We might see a concerted effort to head-off such triggers of physical violence as the 1990 Oka stand-off by addressing the structural violence of poverty, unemployment, and political marginalization.

The appointment of a national security adviser (Rob Wright, formerly a key player on the Foreign and Defence Affairs Secretariat of the PCO) will help to develop an integrated policy for national security and emergencies. In mid-December, Wright oversaw development of the new National Security Strategy, which is expected to generate initial direction for reviews of foreign affairs and national defence - both to be completed before the anticipated spring election. Wright's main function, however, will be to support the Security, Public Health, and Emergencies Committee of Cabinet, "co-ordinating integrated threat assessments and inter-agency cooperation among security organisations."6 As the architect of the 2002 budget that allocated security spending to RCMP, CSIS, transport and health, Martin now appears to be consolidating the holistic vision of national security by appointing Wright to a central co-ordinating role. This is not good news for those who see security only in terms of increased military spending, and it suggests that the Canada-US Affairs Committee will have to pay attention to managing American perceptions of Canada's contribution to the common defence burden.

The PM's role changes under martin

Wright's appointment as National Security Adviser also signals a subtle change in the dynamics of Canada's security relations with the United States. Under Chretien, the prime minister was largely an éminence gris, with little direct involvement in the Canada-US dialogue on homeland defence and related security issues.This changes under Martin. One guesses that Wright will be the point of contact for Condoleeza Rice, and that he will have access to Martin and McLellan.

With a broad security mandate, it is also possible that Wright will help to centralize decision-making and advice that has hitherto been "stove-piped" in separate departments. This will be important to the Department of National Defence (DND), as it will have to work closely with new government departments involved in national security. The reserves will be assigned more important roles in emergency preparedness and civil defence under the Ministry for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. The Canadian Border Services Agency is likely to involve specialized police and military capabilities, and the Canadian Coast Guard may also begin to look more like its American counterpart. If the kinds of security operations envisioned actually materialize, DND and the Canadian Forces could be a supporting player in many more operations. This puts a premium on such specialities as electronic warfare and surveillance, strategic transport, area knowledge, and aid of the civil power, rather than on traditional navy, army and air force roles.

Review Canada's place in the World

Domestic security and homeland defence, however, are only part of the picture. Martin's 12 December release also promises a review of Canada's place in the world, including development assistance, defence priorities, the Canada-US relationship, promotion of global governance, and representation abroad. This would be the first fundamental review in a decade, and should be completed in time to inform the party platform for a spring election. A holistic understanding of priorities of the cabinet committees all suggest that those looking for big infusions of cash for military hardware will be disappointed.

The 12 December release from the PMO can be seen as an early marker for the Martin platform in a spring election. But whatever happens then, the machinery of government is being changed now. Predictable national security decisions will be handled through a more sophisticated network of cabinet committees, and we can hope that crises will find a better-prepared federal government, with clearly defined political responsibilities.


1 Albert Legault, "Bringing the Canadian Armed Forces into the Twenty-First Century," Paper submitted to the Prime Minister, March 1997

2 Jane Boulden, "A National Security Council for Canada? Claxton Papers No.2," Kingston: Queens, 2000

3 Colonel R.M. Williams, "A Measure of Realism: Why Canada does not need a National Security Council." Canadian Forces College, National Securities Studies Course 3, April 2001.

4 Colonel C.S. Sullivan, "Responding To Crises: A National Command Council for Canada's Political Leadership," Canadian Forces College, National Security Studies Course 5, 2003.

5 Office of the Prime Minister, Release: Prime Minister Martin Announces New Government will be Guided by a New Approach Ottawa, 12 December, 2003.

6 Interviews, Ottawa, 29 Jan. 2004. 8 PMO, Release, 12 Dec. 2003.

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