Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper's brand at odds with reality

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There is a widening credibility gap between Prime Minister Stephen Harper's belligerent stance on world issues and his willingness to match words with capability and deeds.

Whether the subject is Russia, Syria, Iran or almost any hot spot, Mr. Harper has stood out among world leaders for his strident language and apocalyptic warnings. Russia's conduct in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, for example, was similar to the Third Reich's annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Mr. Harper says, while Iran would have "no hesitation" to use nuclear weapons for "religious or political purposes."

His foreign affairs minister, John Baird, has been equally bold, promising NATO allies earlier this year Canada would stand with them "in the face of aggression."

It all sounds like a call to arms, but they were largely meaningless rants from a country that increasingly resembles the mouse that roared.

Despite Mr. Harper's carefully crafted image as a military leader and man of action, the Conservatives have been slashing the defence budget and delaying procurement of new ships, airplanes and army vehicles.

Some critics fear the military could be heading into another decade of darkness, similar to the 1990s when the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien slashed defence spending to balance the budget.

Of course Mr. Harper's main political priority today is a balanced budget in advance of next year's federal election.

Like prime ministers dating back to the early 1960s, Mr. Harper has discovered the defence department is a convenient target for budget cuts in times of need. Canadians may respect the country's military traditions, but they rarely get upset when the government of the day decides to trim its sails.

When it comes to health care or a new jet fighter, the choice has always been easy.

Even the plight of some modern-day veterans, who say they aren't getting the services they need, has been ignored by the Harper government.

Canada's defence budget has shrunk since the country left Afghanistan in 2011, but crises in the Middle East, Africa and now eastern Europe have continued to exert pressure on the military -- and Mr. Harper's image as a defence advocate.

The country currently spends about one per cent of GDP on defence, one of the lowest ratios in NATO, which is urging Canada to increase its spending.

The prime minister introduced a new defence strategy in 2008 with the promise Canada would "return to the international stage as a credible and influential country." It was an easy sell at a time when Canadian troops were engaged in combat in Afghanistan.

The blueprint envisioned more troops and better equipment, but today the Harper brand and reality have never been farther apart.

With Mr. Harper set to slash roughly $3 billion from the defence budget, his defence strategy is a shambles and no longer credible.

At a time when threats are emerging around the world, the country is obliged as a G-8 nation to maintain an effective and significant military capability.

Mr. Harper is to meet his NATO partners Thursday when he will likely be asked to contribute to a rapid-deployment force for eastern Europe.

After all his tough talk, it's hard to see how the prime minister could turn down such a request.

A significant contribution would show Canada is serious about meeting its international obligations and supporting its allies.

It would certainly match words with deeds.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2014 A6

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