(Disclosure: Although I did not contribute to the report, I am currently working with CIGI on two separate projects.)
The paper, authored by Aaron Shull and Wesley Wark, is based on an extensive, year-long consultative process that included 250 subject matter experts from across the country.
A blog like this cannot do justice to the 20 pages of serious analysis that Shull and Wark have produced, and I therefore encourage you to read the report for yourself.
I do, however, want to draw attention to what appears to me to be an inconsistency in the recommendations section.
I noticed it because a number of years ago I made the same mistake.
The authors suggest, convincingly, that Canada and Canadians would benefit from greater transparency and public reporting on issues of national security.
To that end, they call on the prime minister to issue two annual statements to Parliament (one on worldwide threats and one on intelligence priorities), an idea that I quite like.
It seems to me, however, that a separate recommendation about national security governance could undermine that same spirit of transparency.
The report proposes the (re-)establishment of a cabinet committee on national security, to be chaired by the prime minister.
Eight years ago, when the Harper government disbanded a similar committee, I criticized the decision as “regressive” in a blog for the Toronto Star.
“Its existence [had] confirmed,” I suggested, “that, in spite of Ottawa’s refusal to update the Liberals’ 2004 national security strategy, not to mention its unwillingness to issue a white paper on foreign policy, the Conservative government nevertheless understood the importance of thinking seriously about Canada’s long-term strategic posture in world affairs.”
Scrapping the committee suggested to me that the prime minister was deprioritizing national security.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I was wrong.
In the Canadian system of government, prime ministers get the strategic-decision making process that they want.
For a time, Prime Minister Harper believed that chairing a cabinet committee on national security would provide him with the information he needed to govern effectively.
Two years later, he changed his mind. Apparently, he preferred to liaise with his National Security Advisor directly, and alone.
When Prime Minister Trudeau took over in 2015, he chaired a cabinet committee on intelligence and emergency management.
It, too, didn’t last. Again, it appears that, for whatever reason, the prime minister did not find it useful.
My point here is not that a cabinet committee on national security chaired by the prime minister is necessarily a bad idea.
Rather, it’s that our last two prime ministers have explicitly rejected it because it hasn’t worked for them personally.
It follows that if such a structure were imposed, they would inevitably work around it, and Canadians would be left misled in terms of where national security decisions were really being made.
Consider the situation in the United States: regardless of the formal structures in place, each president still delegates power, authority, and influence among the secretary of state, the national security advisor, and the vice-president differently.
In sum, if we want greater transparency from government, it’s best to let the prime minister design the system in a way that works for them, and then to ask pointed questions until we get the answers we’re looking for.
If Mr. Trudeau doesn’t want to chair a cabinet committee on national security, perhaps start by asking him why.
Foreign Affairs published a great essay on the role of the US national security advisor back in 2009. It was based on a book that is summarized here. For more on the Canadian side, take a look at this older paper by Andrew Brunatti as well as Greg Fyffe’s chapter in Top Secret Canada.
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