DND may need as much as two extra years to meet budget battle goals
The Canadian flag flies at half-mast at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, Thursday March 12, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, October 26, 2015 2:43PM EDT
OTTAWA -- National Defence is struggling to implement a program to give the military less administrative tail and more operational teeth, which was a signature initiative of the outgoing Conservative government.
Documents, written earlier this year and obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, show officials running the Defence Renewal Program are searching for more "reinvestment opportunities" to meet the government's goal of finding between $750 million and $1.2 billion a year in departmental savings.
The plan, as announced in the fall of 2013, was to divert savings from redundant programs to front-line initiatives.
The program was supposed to be fully in place by the 2017-18 budget year, but the memos suggest the department needs more time, possibly as much as two years.
A briefing prepared for former defence minister Rob Nicholson, on Jan. 16, 2015, says a cumulative total of only $146 million in savings had been earmarked to the end of the fiscal year in March.
Maj. Doug McNair, a spokesman for the renewal team, says that figure was eventually bumped up to $158 million.
He said the original dollar amounts and timelines were "an estimate of possible savings developed by a consultant using data from 2012" and that refinements were expected and are underway.
"No new estimate and timeline has been finalized or approved," McNair said in an email. "We remain committed to achieving the strategic outcomes of Defence renewal and reinvesting the resulting substantial savings in readiness and capability development."
The administrative overhaul of National Defence, which the Conservatives long considered bloated and inefficient, was one of the pillars of the outgoing government's reform agenda, something in which Stephen Harper took a personal interest. At one point, he took the unusual step of admonishing former defence minister Peter MacKay for not cutting deep enough on the administrative side and publicly made his feelings known during the swearing-in for former general Tom Lawson in 2012.
"The Forces must be restructured to ensure administrative burdens are reduced and resources freed up for the front line," the prime minister said on Oct. 29, 2012. "The Canada First Defence Strategy must continue to advance and, as I've said before, with the constant search for more teeth and less tail."
Harper commissioned a study by retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who is now a newly elected Liberal MP and a leading contender for a cabinet post in Justin Trudeau's government.
Trudeau, during the election campaign, signalled he would follow a similar path to Harper and proposed "a leaner, more agile, better equipped" military, saying he believed "there's a lot of administrative weight" in the department compared with the uniformed branch.
The new government will be sworn in next week and it remains unclear how hard the Liberals will lean on defence to follow the Conservative initiative.
A defence source, who was not authorized to speak to the media on the subject, says Gen. Jon Vance, the country's new top military commander, has put his weight behind the savings exercise, even though some corners of the department see less urgency.
In formulating the renewal plan, defence officials cherry-picked from Leslie's transformation report. It remains an open question whether the Liberals will use the report as a template for their own changes.