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National Defence struggling to cut hundreds of millions in waste, inefficiencies

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan rises during Question Period on Parliament Hill, Friday, March 10, 2017 in Ottawa.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
March 12, 2017 - 8:00 PM

OTTAWA - While the Liberal government faces pressure to spend more on the military, National Defence has struggled to use the billions of dollars it already receives each year more efficiently.

The defence renewal initiative was launched to much fanfare in 2013 and aimed to trim between $750 million and $1.2 billion in waste that could be redirected back into training, maintenance and other frontline activities.

The five-year effort, which was to cut managers, centralize contracting and increase the use of simulators, was a direct result of then-prime minister Stephen Harper's call for "more teeth, less tail."

Progress has been made in the intervening years, National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said, with approximately $265 million in waste identified and used to address other "financial pressures."

That includes buying more spare parts for military vehicles and investing in training facilities.

"We take great pride in being responsible stewards of public funds," Le Bouthillier said in an email, "and will continue our hard work towards meeting our target."

But that progress is marred by the fact the department won't meet its original target, and will need at least another 18 months to hit the bottom end of its new target of $700 million in savings.

Even that could be optimistic, however, as internal documents show defence officials are banking on savings in a number of areas that so far haven't yielded any.

It likely doesn't help that one of the military's strongest advocates for eliminating waste was recently suspended under mysterious circumstances.

"I give you fair warning: You will receive no quarter with me," Vice-Admiral Mark Norman said when he took over as the military's second-in-command in August.

"I intend to root out unnecessary and non-value-added bureaucracy and process inside our own lines here at National Defence."

Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance relieved Norman of his duties without explanation in January and the naval officer has since retained the services of high-profile lawyer Marie Henein.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said it is incumbent on all government departments, especially the military, which receives about $20 billion a year, to ensure the money is spent wisely.

"Canadians expect that of us," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"At the same time, we need to make sure that we maximize our dollars to make sure we have the right equipment for our troops and are able to send them to places, and (provide) realistic training."

But Sajjan also said he is not going to force the department to do anything that will affect the military's ability to do its job.

"I want them to go through the efforts, and they are," he said. "But I'm not going to start taking away from other capabilities that's going to take away from our troops."

The department's initial goals may have been overambitious, says defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, but efforts to cut waste and find savings have been inconsistent across the department and military.

"It doesn't really seem like the department's been thoroughly engaged in the overall effort," he said.

"Parts of it certainly have, but if you unpack where those efficiencies and savings have come from, they're kind of unevenly distributed. Some parts of the department have taken it seriously, and others not."

The fact is, Perry said, cutting waste remains important, as there are parts of the military that remain short of funds and growing signs the government isn't planning to dramatically increase defence spending in the March 22 budget.

"If there are ways they find either human or financial resources by reorganizing, being more efficient or doing things differently," Perry said, "then they need to look really carefully at that."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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