Liberals Giving Some Allies Overview Of Updated Defence Policy

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OTTAWA — The Liberal government has been providing select allies with what officials say is a broad overview of its long-awaited defence policy update, even as Canadians wait for the specifics.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan revealed Monday that the government would release the policy update to Canadians on June 7 — after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets fellow NATO leaders next week.

But The Canadian Press has learned that Sajjan briefed counterparts from Britain, Australia and New Zealand last week on what officials described as a general overview of the policy's direction.

harjit sajjan
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan revealed that the government would release the defence policy update to Canadians on June 7. (Photo: The Canadian Press)

The briefing occurred in Copenhagen, according to the officials, where defence ministers from a number of countries were discussing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance also provided his American counterpart, Gen. Joseph Dunford, with an overview of the new policy during a recent visit to Washington, officials said.

The officials requested anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Opposition Conservatives had complained even before news of the briefings that U.S. officials, in particular, were getting a sneak preview of the policy before Canadians.

The complaints were in response to Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland flying to Washington for dinner Monday with Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Briefings had broad generalities: officials

Asked Tuesday about the U.S. reaction to the planned policy update, Freeland told The Canadian Press: "They're very aware and supportive of all the hard work we're doing in many places ... And they were glad to hear about our plans to strengthen Canada's role even further."

There are big stakes attached to the policy update, including billions of dollars in planned military spending and the long-term viability of the Canadian Armed Forces.

But the officials insisted the briefings only outlined the new policy in broad generalities, and that allies will find out the specifics at the same time as Canadians next month.

"They're not getting copies of the document, they're not getting a drilldown," one official said. "They're getting a broad-strokes overview of where we intend to go."

Still, the fact that some allies are getting a taste for where the Liberals intend to go with their defence policy update stands in stark contrast to the government's silence here at home.

The Liberals have provided little indication of what is actually included in the policy update, aside from general statements about taking care of military personnel and that it will be fully costed.

"Government advances foreign policy through defence, and not the other way around."

Details yet to be disclosed include whether the number of military personnel will expand or shrink, and how much money the government plans to invest in the armed forces over the short and long term.

Some have also questioned why the Liberals are waiting until after next week's NATO leaders' summit to release the review, after previously promising to unveil it before next Thursday's meeting.

In fact, the policy update had initially been promised at the beginning of the year, before Donald Trump's election as U.S. president sent the Liberals — and all of government — scurrying to figure out his priorities.

Officials maintained the government wants to set up the policy's release with a major speech by Freeland in which she will lay out Canada's broader foreign policy goals.

And they denied that the most recent delay had anything to do with waiting to see what Trump says in Brussels, where he will be attending his first NATO summit.

Trump has been pressuring other countries in the military alliance to increase their defence spending, arguing they have not been carrying their weight in NATO.

Canada's spending hovers at about one per cent of GDP, despite a NATO goal to eventually spend about two per cent of GDP.

University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, who previously served as Trudeau's foreign policy adviser, said it makes sense to brief Canada's allies in broad terms given the country doesn't work alone.

He also said there are advantages to setting the defence policy update in a broader foreign policy perspective.

"This is not a stand-alone document," Paris said. "Government advances foreign policy through defence, and not the other way around."

With files from Alexander Panetta in Washington, D.C.

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