Charest preaches moderation, except on national defence

Jean Charest wrapped up a mini-tour of Nova Scotia yesterday preaching moderation on all things except defence policy and military spending.

The former Quebec premier was the first Conservative leadership candidate to visit the province. Speaking to a small but enthusiastic audience at a community centre in Dartmouth, he made an impassioned plea for the party’s top job.

“There’s a choice here,” Charest told the mostly masked gathering. “We’re going to go down either the path of American-style politics — of this division and wedge politics and sloganeering — or we’re going to remain Canadian.”

In a thinly veiled attack on presumed leadership frontrunner Pierre Poilievre, he denounced those Conservative politicians who supported the recent convoy protests in Ottawa.

Elected officials “cannot use the body of laws like a buffet table,” Charest said. “If you’re supporting blockades, you’re not supporting Canada.”

His remarks on the environment were, by Conservative standards at least, similarly moderate.

“I’m favourable to oil and gas,” Charest said in response to a question from the audience. “The last pipeline built in Quebec was built under my government.”

But he also listed a number of tangible measures to address climate change and transition to a greener economy, including “a policy that has a price on carbon.”

“We have to have a climate policy that makes sense and is going to be credible,” he said. “Otherwise, we won’t be elected.”

Policy weaknesses on the environment cost Conservatives dearly in last year’s federal election, Charest suggested.

“Trudeau didn’t win that campaign,” he said. “We lost it. We lost it because we didn’t have our act together.”

Charest’s middle-of-the-road, non-ideological approach was well-received by a couple of former politicians who share his concern about Poilievre’s bombastic style of politics.

Former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and MLA Tim Olive told Charest that Conservatives “would never get elected again in Canada” if Poilievre wins the leadership.

“He’s too far right,” Olive said.

Another former Tory MLA, Alfie MacLeod, drove all the way from Cape Breton to pledge his support for Charest’s leadership bid.

“One of the things that I really, really wanted to say to you is ‘thank you.’ Thank you for putting your name forward,” he told Charest. “Because, until you did that, I — and I think there are a number of people in this room — didn’t see a party in Ottawa that we could support anymore.”

But while Charest may have a relatively nuanced and thoughtful position on a range of issues, that isn’t the case when it comes to defence policy.

“I want us to occupy our land and affirm our sovereignty in northern Canada, in the Arctic,” he told audience members in Dartmouth. “And I would make sure that we have the equipment we need, including arctic patrol ships which are armed, so that we’re occupying that part of our country.”

Charest is apparently responding to fears about possible Russian aggression in Canada’s Far North. But, as one of the country’s most prominent defence journalists has noted, this perceived threat is just one of many “fantastical scenarios” being opportunistically promulgated by military hawks in the wake of Russia’s unconscionable invasion of Ukraine.

Charest released a policy paper on defence and veterans’ issues the day before his appearance in Dartmouth. In it, he calls for a massive increase in Canada’s military budget and a dramatic hike in personnel numbers.

He commits to increasing Canadian defence spending to two per cent of GDP, despite the fact only 8 out of 30 NATO members met this completely arbitrary benchmark in 2021.

Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux has said increasing Canada’s defence spending to that level would cost up to $25 billion more per year. Where would Charest, who preached fiscal conservatism in his address to supporters, come up with that much money? He didn’t say.

Perhaps the most outlandish part of the leadership hopeful’s defence policy is the troop levels he’s targeting.

Charest wants to “rebuild our regular force strength to 75,000 personnel and reserves to 50,000.” These figures, particularly on the reserve side, are pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Canada’s current reserve military — navy, army, and air force — has fewer than 30,000 members at present, and that includes “non-effective strength” personnel who exist largely on paper while waiting for release processes to catch up to them.

As a former reservist, I am painfully aware of how difficult and time-consuming recruitment and retention are when it comes to part-time sailors, soldiers, and aviators. And beyond the question of how to attract all these new reservists, there’s also the challenge of equipping, training, and meaningfully employing them.

Simply put, I don’t think Charest has thought these things through.

Rather, he seems to be responding in a haphazard and ill-informed manner to the resurgence of unbridled militarism in Canada.