The Minister's Advisory Group recommended a process for closing bases. Whatever happened to it?
The announcement in February's federal budget of major cuts to National Defence (DND) including four major military base closures, various base reductions and a whopping 16,500 cut to personnel, demonstrates two weaknesses of governing parties: the tendency to routinely repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and the inability to recall their own prelection critiques.
In 1989 Bill McKnight, then Minister of National Defence, ordered the closure of three Canadian Forces bases. His announcement, falling under the convention of budget secrecy, deprived the workers, communities and regions affected of any advance notice. It also set off a political firestorm. Area politicians, community activists and labour, outraged by the surprise offensive, lobbied to reverse the decision. The Liberal party, the Official Opposition then, sharply criticized the government for its failure to mitigate the adverse socio-economic impacts of military base closures. The Liberals also demanded that the government address the needs of the affected communities.
The widespread criticism resulted in the establishment of the Minister's Advisory Group on Defence Infrastructure (MAGDI) to develop recommendations for a more effective process for closing bases. McKnight's successor, Marcel Masse, envisaged the MAGDI tackling the longstanding dilemma facing DND; it possesses bases that no longer serve a legitimate military requirement yet play a vital economic role in the host regions and thus attempts to close them generate strong political resistance. At the same time, the military is seeking to realign its budget by increasing funding towards replacement of aging equipment. Of course, Masse was also trying to provide a delay mechanism that would allow the Conservatives to avoid making difficult decisions regarding further base closings during the 1993 election run-up.
The MAGDI was directed in 1991 to "help formulate a decision-making framework, which can be used to rationalize Canada's defence infrastructure." The mandate included process, potential savings, and socio-economic impacts effectively limiting their venture. MAGDI's principal inspiration was the successful American model of de -politicized military rationalization in which Congress reviewed an "all or none" package of recommended closures.
The MAGDI claimed to have discovered a widespread consensus on a number of points:that the forces had a higher ratio of bases than was operationally justified: that military considerations should be the primary determinants of adjustments; and that partisan political interests should be eliminated from the decision making process. Nevertheless, the MAGDI also recognized the regional economic impacts involved, as well as the need for public participation.
The committee's report proposed a 16-month process for closing surplus bases, beginning with the military submitting a list of target sites to the Minister. The affected communities would then be informed and the proposal scrutinized by an independent review panel. The panel would be responsible for holding public hearings and validation of the military rationale, as well as for ensuring that sufficient mitigation measures are identified. The panel would then pass along its recommendations first to the Minister and then to a parliamentary committee obliged to either accept or reject the complete package.
The MAGDI report also attached to the federal government the responsibility for mitigating the economic impacts of the base closures. It intended, however, that DND would bear only minimal obligations to the communities: in addition to performing its initial impact assessment and providing fair severance to its civilian employees, the department should contribute a small amount of seed money to assist the community in its search for economic alternatives. The balance of federal mitigation responsibilities would fall under the coordination of Human Resource Development.
The public process outlined in the MAGDI report brought to bear a measure of common sense. Opposition parties generally conceded the value of the recommendations but fiercely objected to its manipulation by the Tories as a ploy to delay any controversial decisions until after the 1993 election. The partisan motivation behind the MAGDI had the unfortunate consequence of discrediting its findings.
The rest of the criticism of the report focused around two issues. First the process, at 16 months, was viewed as too time-consuming. The Americans had completed an equivalent exercise in about eight months. Secondly, the Minister's ability to ignore the panel's recommendations or alter the list of proposed closings left the door open to exactly the sort of politicallobbying that MAGDI had been expected to eradicate.
Still, the Chretien government in its haste to champion deficit reduction, chose to throw out the baby with the bathwater, adopting the same methods as their predecessors. The Liberals perpetuated the practice of introducing closures through the budget process, thereby precluding public dialogue or independent review. Taxpayers were denied any participation in determining defence spending, never to know how the announcements reflected political horse-trading versus legitimate military reasoning.
The Liberals also rejected federal responsibility for offsetting the economic loss in the affected regions. Defence Minister David Collenette encouraged communities to tighten their belts and make the best of it. For dependent towns such as Cornwallis, N.S., making the best of it will likely mean community disintegration. Withdrawal of the $30 million the base pumps into the area is estimated to entail 100 local business failures and 2,000 lost jobs.
What could the Liberals have done instead? Much of the framework had already been described in the MAGDI report. Here are a few suggestions to build on that foundation:
Tom Clairmont is staff officer with the Union of National Defence Employees.