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Defence policy update: Industry demand for clarity has Blair back at drawing board

OTTAWA, Kan. — Defence Minister Bill Blair says he recently instructed his team to rejig the Liberals’ long-promised defence policy update, so as to give industry more clarity on long-term spending plans

“As the world becomes an increasingly difficult and challenging place, we have to make those investments,” Blair told an industry conference on Wednesday.

Blair told a summit held by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada that the group helped him realize the current plans would not adequately answer questions raised by defence companies.

“It’s in part as a result of the meeting I had with you and your team the other day — a couple weeks ago — that I went back to my own team, and I said, ‘We really got to — as we now recraft and refine the defence policy update, it has to be an industry policy as well,'” he said.

Blair said that he met with the Prime Minister’s Office “earlier this week” about the new changes to a policy update that had initially been expected in the fall of 2022.

He said he also expects to soon sit down with Finance Canada officials, who are set to publish the government’s overall spending plan in a mini-budget in the coming weeks.

“I hope to be able to provide that clarity in the next few months, as part of the fall economic statement that Finance will come out with, and so that the resources and the clarity will be there in the budget in the coming year,” Blair said.

The Liberals took office well before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, and before an escalation in military activity around China. Blair said that before those events, his government didn’t indicate it would need new technology or artillery.

“Part of the problem is we did not send that clear signal several years ago. And as a consequence, Canadian industry is not always in the best position to be able to respond in a timely way.”

Blair, who took on his role in July, said he is working off of the mandate letter Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued in December 2021 to the previous defence minister, Anita Anand.

“I did not get a new mandate letter from the prime minister, but quite frankly, the world has changed quite significantly since Minister Anand got hers,” he said.

Anand is now head of the Treasury Board and has ordered various departments to cut back on spending. Blair said that might involve cutting back on executive travel or consultants, based on Anand’s directions to him.

He said she was “crystal clear” that her request of the Defence Department should not “in any way impact on (Canadian Armed Forces) capability or the support we provide to CAF members.”

Blair suggested he has been working with government officials to find new funds to back up the policy update.

“This is not being disparaging of anyone, but I think the Finance people kind of look at it as a bit of a shopping list, and that’s really not what the defence policy update is supposed to be,” he said.

“It is not merely a national defence policy. It’s a national industry policy; it’s a policy about innovation; it’s a policy about workers. It’s a policy about economic security and prosperity in this country. It’s a foreign-policy initiative.”

Blair’s comments follow a speech Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly gave Oct. 30, in which she promised that “we will increase our investments in our military, through the defence policy update.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press