Blair says he couldn't sell Canadians, cabinet on 'magical threshold' of NATO target

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Bill Blair says it’s hard to convince cabinet and Canadians that meeting the NATO spending target is a worthy goal, because "nobody knows what that means."

Instead, he said Wednesday, he’s tried to argue that Canada must do more to defend itself — and that will require more money.

All NATO allies have agreed to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence. Canada’s defence spending amounted to 1.33 per cent in 2023, according to the alliance’s estimates.

Speaking at a conference on Norad modernization in Ottawa on Wednesday, Blair said he’s pushed for more since taking over the portfolio last summer.

"I had to sort of keep on pushing my issue forward about the importance and the need to invest in defence," he said.

But affordability issues are top of mind for government, he said, noting the "current fiscal environment."

"Trying to go to cabinet, or even to Canadians, and tell them that we had to do this because we need to meet this magical threshold of two per cent. ... Don’t get me wrong. It’s important, but it was really hard convince people that that was a worthy goal, that that was some noble standard that we had to meet."

The new defence policy Blair introduced last month aims to reach 1.76 per cent of GDP by 2030 — or $49.5 billion. The Defence Department’s budget was $26.9 billion last year.

Critics have pointed out that this leaves Canada as one of the only allies with no plan to reach the goal.

Blair has said the spending will grow because some items in the policy, including a pledge to explore options to buy new submarines for the Royal Canadian Navy, don’t have a cost attached to them yet.

"I couldn’t go and make a defence policy argument to reach that spreadsheet target of two per cent," Blair told the conference.

"And so instead, we set out to make the argument about the need to defend this country and the need to invest in the Canadian Armed Forces."

Blair’s office added in a subsequent statement that the government remains committed to the NATO target.

And the minister himself later phoned to offer further clarification.

"First of all, I wasn’t having a big argument with cabinet," he said in that interview.

"My job is also to go before cabinet and make my case. I didn’t try to make that case based on an Excel spreadsheet. I tried to make that case based on the emerging threat environment and the work that we needed to do to fulfill our obligations to Canadians."

He added that "the public, the media and foreign governments" have been talking about Canada’s defence spending in terms of the NATO target.

Blair’s office said he "was successful in securing $73 billion in defence investments under the policy."

That spending is over the course of 20 years, with $8.1 billion allocated in the first five years of the policy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2024.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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