What is it about?

Foreign policy bipartisanship in Westminster systems is often seen something positive. However, a number of scholars suggest that it comes at a price. This article joins that debate by examining two contemporary foreign/defence policy issues in Canadian politics: the mission in Afghanistan (2001–2014) the efforts to replace the CF-18 Hornet flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force. I show that a bipartisan approach to the Afghanistan mission confirms the criticism that bipartisanship can suppress public debate. But the CF-18 replacement suggests that there are significant costs to overt politicisation. I conclude that the quality of partisanship is a necessary condition to avoid the dysfunctions and costs of bipartisanship.

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Why is it important?

Critics of bipartisanship in foreign and defence policy argue that it suppresses public debate about important issues of war and peace. Proponents of bipartisanship note that the politicisation of these issues can lead to policy dysfunction and in some cases the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. Getting the balance right is crucial: on the one hand, ensuring that the opposition in Westminster systems opposes properly so that important issues are debated is crucial for democratic governance; on the other hand, ensuring that government and opposition do not politicise issues to the point of dysfunction.


Canada's Afghanistan mission and the CF-18 Hornet replacement nicely demonstrated to me the difficulties of the debate over bipartisanship in Westminster systems. In the Afghanistan case, the bipartisan efforts of the two major parties to take the mission off the agenda deprived Canadians of the opportunity to have a national debate on a mission that cost the lives of 159 Canadian soldiers. The efforts of those political parties to politicise the CF-18 fighter replacement has resulted in the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars and deprived the Royal Canadian Air Force of crucial capability.

Kim Nossal
Queen's University

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This page is a summary of: The benefits of foreign policy bipartisanship revisited: lessons from two Canadian cases, Australian Journal Of International Affairs, August 2017, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2017.1334190.
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