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Canadian CoS on Relations With Parliament

Members of the CDA,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is indeed an honour to be here today to speak to the Conference of Defence Associations on my role as Chief of the Defence Staff in relation to Parliament.

Over the years, the CDA has contributed to furthering education, discussion and debate about the defence of Canada. The topic of today’s seminar is particularly important -- that of the relationship between Parliament and the Military, and how to enhance it.

Canada is a long-standing member of the family of democratic nations, which espouse the primacy of legislative authority over national military forces. This is as it should be, and it is a fundamental and constitutional element of our society. It is the Government of Canada that makes policy. Parliamentary democracy, however, can only function properly if the debate, discussion and choices made are based on accurate and timely information. That is why openness, transparency, public discussion and seminars like this one being conducted today are so important.

Over the past decade, the pace of change in international affairs has accelerated. The end of the Cold War, the impact of globalization, the shift in focus to the broader challenges of national security -- these changes in Canada's security environment have made the world a more complex place. In my view, this puts a premium on consultation and discussion with the Canadian public and its elected representatives. That is why I welcome the opportunity to speak to you on the role of the CDS in relation to Parliament.

I would like to focus on three main points. First, the role and responsibilities of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Secondly, the context in which the CDS gives advice and recommendations to Cabinet. And thirdly, the interactions of the CDS with Parliament.

Let us begin with a clear understanding of the role and responsibilities of the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Parliament has set down in law the roles and responsibilities of defence officials, outlining how the relationship between the military and the government is to be organized and governed. My own role is laid out in the National Defence Act, and is amplified in a number of administrative directives, precedents and traditions.

As the senior officer of the Canadian Forces, I exercise command and control over the CF, and I am responsible to the Minister of National Defence for the conduct and condition of the Forces and for the CF's ability to fulfill the commitments and obligations of the government of Canada. Under the National Defence Act, the authority to issue orders to the Canadian Forces lies in the office of the CDS, and nowhere else.

The CDS is also directly responsible for responding to requests from provincial attorneys-general for aid of the civil power. As CDS, it is my responsibility to evaluate these requests and determine what level of deployment would be necessary to deal with the situation at hand. While the final authority legally rests with the CDS alone, I would find it hard to conceive of any CDS taking this sort of decision without consulting with the Minister.

In addition to command and control of the Canadian Forces, I am also the principal advisor to the Minister of National Defence on military matters, and, as required, provide military advice to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet as a whole. The advice that I give includes military requirements, military capabilities, and the options and possible consequences of undertaking, or failing to undertake, various military activities.

This brings me to my second point -- the context in which the CDS gives advice and recommendations to Cabinet.

Cabinet, of course, is charged with setting the policy and goals of the Government, and Ministers are ultimately accountable to Parliament and Canadians for the decisions they take. The Canadian political system requires that Cabinet makes its decisions collectively. Ministers are bound by the principle of Cabinet solidarity; once a decision has been taken, all ministers must publicly support the policy.

My role is to provide military advice on any Memorandum to Cabinet that deals with issues of national defence. The professional insight and operational details on potential military deployments or on the military impact of significant policy changes are often essential for a full understanding of the issues at stake.

However, I must emphasize that the CDS provides recommendations, and not direction. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Government -- the Cabinet -- to accept or reject that advice and make its own decisions. I give advice and recommendations based on my knowledge of the military issues at stake.

There is another key advisor in this process: the Deputy Minister of National Defence. While I focus on the military aspects of a given issue, the Deputy Minister provides advice on issues of general government policy as it relates to questions of resources, policy, international defence relations and alternative methods of achieving government policies.

Thus, to get the full picture of advice to Cabinet, it is necessary to consider the responsibilities and roles of both the DM and the CDS. In practice, the Deputy Minister and the CDS work in a complementary fashion to achieve the defence goals set out by the government. Ultimately, we advise, Cabinet decides.

This brings me to my third and most important point -- the interaction of the CDS with Parliament and the Government as a whole. My relationship with Parliament, as opposed to Cabinet, is less formal and less institutionalized.

But does that mean it is any less important? Not in the least, in my view.

Over the last few years, the Government has sought to increase transparency and accountability, and thereby strengthen the role of Parliament in public policy debate. This is important, as defence is a core function of government. It is clear that Canada -- as a member of the global community, faces significant challenges in the decades ahead. The end of the Cold War has not brought about a world of perpetual peace. Rather, we have taken on peace support operations that are more frequent, complex, and dangerous.

As CDS, I believe it is important to get Parliament and Canadians engaged in defence issues. Indeed, increasing the transparency of the Canadian Forces and its activities to the Canadian public, and particularly to Parliament, has been one of my central goals. It is why I have pushed hard for a new public affairs policy and a more active approach to our public communications.

It is also why I take very seriously my appearances before Parliamentary Committees in both the House of Commons and the Senate. These meetings are one of the most effective ways for me to discuss these issues with Parliament and ensure that they have the best possible information about the Canadian Forces.

Committee appearances can focus on activities and programs specific to the Department of National Defence. Or, more often than not, they can concentrate on the broader activities of the Canadian Forces internationally. During the Kosovo conflict, for example, other senior officers and I appeared on numerous occasions before both the Defence committee and the Foreign Affairs committee, and the Senate, to provide military briefings. These briefings were important and, in my view, mutually rewarding.

Through these briefings and other fora, and by working together, we have made considerable progress in tackling some truly substantive issues, such as operational readiness, risk levels, and issues of sustainability of operations.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs was also very active in examining the quality of life of CF members. The Committee toured bases to gain a first-hand appreciation of the realities and difficulties of service life. Other senior officers and I provided detailed briefings and information on this complex, but very important subject. Again, the result is there for all to see. The Committee produced an excellent analysis and key recommendations for improving CF quality of life, which the Government and the Canadian Forces leadership are implementing.

The SCONDVA Quality of Life study stands out for another reason. This was an instance where the Minister of National Defence and the CDS suggested that a Parliamentary Committee examine and provide recommendations on a specific aspect of the CF. It has proven to be a useful way of developing our mutual interaction. It has led to greater awareness, on our part, of the concerns of Parliament and the Committee members. And it has given the latter a deeper understanding of today’s defence issues.

Of course, committee appearances are not the only means for increasing interaction between Parliament and the military. We regularly produce detailed and timely reports that are tabled by the Minister in Parliament. I am personally responsible for the Chief of the Defence Staff's Annual Report on the State of the Canadian Forces. This report outlines what the CF has accomplished over the past year. It also details current operational effectiveness, progress on reforms, defines our future challenges, and gives information on defence spending, major equipment holdings and capital projects.

We are also working to keep SCONDVA informed of our progress on Quality of Life issues. Last December, we released an interim report detailing our progress on all of the accepted recommendations of the Committee's report. We will also be providing a comprehensive report upon completion of the recommendations.

So, in general, the interaction between Parliament and the military has grown. We have formalized and instituted more and better ways for Parliamentarians to remain aware and involved in defence matters. And we want to keep the momentum going.

However, I do not want to leave you with the impression that all is well and nothing more need be done. Far from it. If there were no concerns about Parliament's role in the oversight of defence, then I seriously doubt that we would be discussing this here at this seminar.

Indeed, Professor Doug Bland's study on Parliament, Defence Policy and the Canadian Armed Forces" concluded that most Parliamentarians do not maintain a sustained interest in military affairs.

In my experience, maintaining a sustained interest on the part of the Canadian public in military affairs is a difficult -- perhaps impossible -- task. However, this does not mean in the least that Canadians are indifferent or unconcerned about defence questions. I believe Canadians do care. Unfortunately, too often it is when there is a crisis, major deployment, or trouble affecting the Canadian Forces. Normal, day-to-day operations and activities of our military seem to receive substantially less attention.

I suppose this is not particularly surprising. Fighting the fires on our doorstep, not planning to deal with the smoke on the horizon, is what concentrates the mind. This is probably true of all of us. Keeping focused on the big picture requires deliberate effort. This is as true of elected officials as it is of military planners. And this means being engaged through thick and thin; during the times of calm as well as those of crisis.

Ladies and gentlemen, national defence is an important issue to the nation. Its importance is continuous, not sporadic. It is future-oriented, as well as crisis specific. It requires looking long-term in order to know what choices and decisions have to be made today.

I speak here as much as a Canadian as the Chief of the Defence Staff. Not only Parliamentarians, but also Canadians as a whole could become better informed about the roles and challenges faced by their Armed Forces and the emerging defence issues that are on the horizon and have the potential to affect us all. As Chief of the Defence Staff, I can promise you that any interest shown will be more than matched by responsiveness on our side. I am committed to improving the transparency and openness of the military, of how we do business, and of our accomplishments and, yes, even our mistakes. And to be better informed about the fine soldiers, sailors and airmen and women who together make up the Canadian Forces is something I believe that Canadians in all walks of life should set as a goal.

That is why I welcome increasing parliamentary consultation and scrutiny of the Canadian Forces. That is also why I welcome any opportunity to assist in deepening and expanding the knowledge, the interest and the engagement of Parliamentarians in our work.

The seminar is an important part of this process. I thank you for having me here today, and I would now like to invite your questions. The Role of the Chief of the Defence Staff in Relations with Parliament