Defence spending: does the party in power spell the difference?


With Canada pulling its fighting troops out of Kandahar this month, there’s growing interest in whether the government’s enthusiasm for defence spending might wane once the heat of combat cools. Over at the National Post, for example, Mercedes Stephenson warns against “nickel and diming ourselves into another decade of darkness.”

That’s a reference to former chief of defence staff Rick Hiller’s evocative characterization of the supposedly dismal era of military spending restraint, imposed by Jean Chrétien’s deficit-fighting Liberal government, which is often said to have brought the Armed Forces such a low point in the 1990s and early in this century.

Voices on the right tend to see the Liberals as inherently unsympathetic to the military, while viewing the Conservatives as naturally inclined to spend more freely on the Forces. But can this pattern be seen in the historical data?

Over the decades, ups and downs in defence budgets in Canada have tended to track U.S. military spending fluctuations, albeit at much lower level, rather than changes in the party in power in Ottawa. (To see this mirroring, take a look at Chart III in this working paper from Project Ploughshares.)

Within this general pattern, it seems to me the variable to watch is the spread between American and Canadian spending on defence as a share of gross domestic product. If you’re inclined to think Canada shouldn’t scrimp on the military, it stands to reason that any widening of the gap between Ottawa’s defence budget as a percentage of the economy and Washington’s might be cause for alarm. U.S spending provides a convenient point of comparison.

So I looked at this recent NATO document, particularly Table 3: Defence expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product.

The NATO figures show the U.S. spent, on average, 2.8 per cent more of its GDP on defence than Canada did (4.6 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent) during last stretch of Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government (1990-94). In the Chrétien era the gap actually narrowed to 2 per cent (1995-99), then widened just slightly to 2.2 per cent (2000-04).

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, U.S. defence spending has again pulled further ahead of Canada’s, with the gap widening from 2.9 per cent in 2006, to 3.9 per cent in 2010, when the U.S. spent an estimated 5.1 per cent of GDP on defence, compared to Canada’s 1.5 per cent.

By this measure, at least, that decade of darkness doesn’t look so dismal for the military after all.

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Defence spending: does the party in power spell the difference?

  1. No, it’s always depended on the times, and the money available.

    The rest is just campaign sloganeering.

  2. Heaven forfend that actual facts and data should get in the way of spin, talking points and a falsely predicated narrative.

    • Don’t forget the ever-popular anecdote!

      “Canadian soldiers are respected around the globe for their
      battle-hardened professionalism, innovative application of
      counterinsurgency doctrine and holding their nerve in Kandahar, while
      other NATO allies cowered on heavily fortified bases munching lobster
      instead of fighting insurgents.”

      Following her and Dan Gardner on twitter, Mercedes backs away from this in a hurry, claiming she only means “some” NATO allies. But, as Gardner points out: http://bit.ly/y5nNr

      What a fatuous and gross insult, compounded by her unsupported thesis. Journamalism at its finest, served up to readers just dying to believe it.

  3. The US it might be noted is going broke over their spending. I’d be more interested in say Australia or Sweden as comparisons. If for no other reason to be a little more realistic in expectations.
    Should we upgrade and buy quality equipment? Absolutely.
    Should we better define what we want of our military domestically and globally? Definitely.
    There will always be disagreements on methods, threats and policy. Leave the politics to the talking heads and find the right equipment for the job that needs done.

    • There have been some comparisons with Australia recently. All of them very inaccurate and wrong! Australia, in the fiscal year to June 30 2012 will spend approx C$32BIL on defence. It’s economy in 2012 by the LATEST figures indicate GDP US$1.52Tril  Can US$1.68 so, FAR away from half what Canada’s economy is. Population 22 mil V 32 Mil BUT Canada’s population according to trend figures will stagnate while by 2050 (on trend figures) Australia’s population will exceed Canada’s. Comparing anything in this world is a hard act – but aspects of defence spending by different countries in order to make a comparison is almost impossible. The Chinese, for instance can put a man in the field for one dollar a day – hence they get more bang for their buck – dif logistic necessities – so many variables – 

  4. If you’re inclined to think Canada shouldn’t scrimp on the military, it
    stands to reason that any widening of the gap between Ottawa’s defence
    budget as a percentage of the economy and Washington’s might be cause
    for alarm

    Why?  That makes no sense.  If it stands to reason, perhaps you could provide the reason.

    Unless you believe the US and Canada might go to war, their relative expenditures are meaningless. In fact, the less that America spends, the more you’d think that Canada should spend, to make up for the loss. So a small gap and a large gap would signal an overall potentially equal strength in North America NATO forces.

    Also, consider that GDP fluctuates, but the real military capabilities are not a percentage of GDP but a hard figure unrelated to GDP, that further underscores the lack of basis for comparison. You only bring GDP into the question to measure affordability, and nothing more. If Chretien’s numbers remained low despite the 90s recession, then you know he was really starving the military.

    • The reasoning is contained within the sentence:

      IF (you like military spending) AND (Canada’s is declining relative to US) THEN (you may be concerned).

      • Why? There is no reasoning there. There is no logic in that statement. We could spend triple and still be declining relative to the US. We could spend almost nothing and yet be gaining relative to the US. Not to mention that the military expenditures in both countries could remain exactly the same forever in real dollars and the figures relative to GDP would always be declining or gaining relative to each other, thanks to the variations in the GDP component.

        That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

        • There is reasoning and logic in the sentence.

          You dispute the measure of Canada’s military spending, which is also quite reasonable and logical. I think you have a good point, but the sentence itself isn’t illogical.

    • Which nineties recession? 

      I do agree that real military capabilities are not to be measured by the percentage of GDP.  A poor country may spend a large percentage of GDP to own four planes.

  5. So according to this article Canadian defence spending has varied by less than 0.5 percent of GDP over the past 27 years.

    More proof of the political hyperbolic lens in this country and yet another reason to think all politicians have time for is filling our ears full of BS.

  6. True patriots never shy from using the military as useful props.

  7. Typical bull oar from Geddes with a pretended analysis.  Why a comparison of Canada and US? Meaningless!  The display of figures mean nothing. Since there is often a 10-year lead time in military procurement, you can’t compare periods with who was in Sussex Street – except now, because the Conservatives have in in power long enough to see their policies turn into hardware.  The long period where the Libs and NDP touted so-called “peace-keeping” did not require much expenditure.  At least the Canadian Forces are starting to have the tools to do what they are asked to do. The one bright light in the Libs history of military procurement was the Avro Arrow which was scrapped by the Prog Cons (Diefenbaker) the principal problem being that the US was not going to have Canada put forward a major NATO aircraft and it’s financial viability required those sales. Now, the new fighter that most of the posters here slam was actually started by the Libs.

    But I think Chretien and  Trudeau actually would have preferred to starve the forces even more than they did.

    Comparing Canada and the US is also false as Canadians tend to only go to or prepare for war for sounder reasons (excluding Afghanistan which we should not have touched with a ten foot (pole), The US are more naturally aggressive, witness  Viet Nam, Spanish-America, Grenada, Iraq and even a propensity to see Iran as a potential target.

    This will change hopefully as Americans contemplate their belly buttons  i the context of their frightful sovereign debt. 

  8. I’m a hardcore Liberal, but believe that we need to be spending several times more money on defence. At the moment we not able to defend ourselves. 

  9. Comprehension seems to be missing here. It is not about spending or anything other than “What is it  
    with which we MAY have to contend and what can we do about it.” If there is nothing you can do about it – then drink up, be merry and don’t worry – but if you can do something – if it is necessary and foreseen – then cost THAT element and don’t cost the unseen, unless you are a super power and the costing has already been included that permits ultimate destruction of an apocalyptic irreversible nature. P.S. I find it so hard to understand why, on ANY site, with moderators capable of censoring a comment as to WHY THE HECK a person has to say who they ARE? Can MACLEANS give some sort of reasonable and not too stupid reason for this undemocratic, out dated consideration? Ohh and so EVERYONE can relate to a reply – please post a reply as an answer to this comment HERE!

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