Shipbuilding contract: the good, the better but not the best


The good news is we won. The better news is that we won fair and square. The best news would be for the process by which Halifax’s Irving shipyard last week won a $25-billion federal shipbuilding contract-for-a-generation become the new norm.

But that last, of course, is least likely.

That’s because the shipbuilding contract was that rare special case in which the always tempting opportunity to claim credit smacked up against the even more critical need to deflect blame.

Usually, when politicians dole out big-ticket largesse, they either try to spread the wealth around so every no-name MP of the right political persuasion from every unlikely constituency—“Calgary sure is a fine place to build a destroyer”—gets their own say-cheese moment… Or they simply plunk all the cash where they think it will win them the most votes.

Sometimes, such cynical schemes backfire. Spectacularly.

In 1986, for example, Brian Mulroney’s government awarded a maintenance contract for its CF-18 fighter jet fleet to a Quebec firm instead of rewarding a clearly better bid from Winnipeg. Western anger over that slight helped spawn the Reform party… and we know where that led.

The current Reform… er, Conservative government certainly didn’t want this contract to go CF-18 on them, especially given competing bids from both coasts and Quebec.

But the Tories—to their credit— also wanted to use this once-in-a-generation contract to create more-than-a-generation centres of shipbuilding excellence in Canada.

So Harper shut out the lobbyists and muzzled the partisans. It’s no surprise he benched Nova Scotia’s “Patronage Pete” MacKay, and no surprise either that MacKay lashed out at the provincial NDP for claiming the (equally undeserved) credit he wanted all for himself.

Instead, Harper turned the process over to senior civil servants and a private sector “fairness monitor.”

By all accounts, the process worked—so well Canadians are asking why not use the same process for other big contracts, like Harper’s recent sketchy $9-billion, no-tender fighter jet deal?

And why not extend this fairness idea to provincial, even municipal contracts?…

Uh, right… This is Canada. Pity.

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