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Den tandt: have the tories changed their tune on sole-sourcedcontracts? - High Power LED Floodlight by grass lawn

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Den tandt: have the tories changed their tune on sole-sourcedcontracts? - High Power LED Floodlight by
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Den tandt: have the tories changed their tune on sole-sourcedcontracts? - High Power LED Floodlight

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OTTAWA At long last, to hear Public Works Minister Rona Ambrosetell it, the federal Conservatives have got that old-time religion:no more sole-sourced, multi-billion-dollar contracts to globaldefence giants. Such deals, beloved of the military brass, causebig owies for everyone else, no one more so than the haplesspoliticians blamed in the ensuing mess. Peter MacKay, Julian Fantino, take a bow. It took seven years or so, which seems like an awful lot of time,for this rather obvious administrative lesson to hit home.

But ithas, apparently. Ambrose said as much this week, in a quitereasonable-sounding speech to a defence industry association. "Things have to change," is what she said. "Theymust continue to change.

Because the status quo is not anoption." The status quo is not an option. And there were other signals this week the federal Conservativeattitude really has changed, on this score. The long-delayed $3.8billion project to find new aircraft for Royal Canadian Air Force(RCAF) search-and-rescue missions is moving ahead, with a draftrequest-for-proposal (RFP) expected in September. Italian aircraftmaker Alenia, whose earlier efforts to secure this contract stalledin 2005 because it was deemed by industry to have an inside trackwith the Defence department, now appears to be competing on a levelplaying field.

Alenia this week unveiled partnerships with Ottawa-based GeneralDynamics Canada and St. John's, N.L.-based Provincial Aerospace. Aday later Lockheed-Martin and B.C.-based Cascade Aerospaceannounced they're teaming up to mount a bid of their own. Eachgroup will now vie with the other to show who can offer the RCAFthe most suitable platform for search and rescue, with the greatestindustrial benefits for Canadians.

Airbus Military, maker of theC-295 air ambulance, is also expected to come to the table with apackage. Driving this "new" approach in fact it was standardoperating procedure for all major materiel purchases until a decadeor so ago is that, last fall, the government managed to award astaggering $33-billion in contracts to shipyards on the East andWest coasts, while taking apass on a historic and troubled Quebecshipyard, with nary a murmur of discontent. It looked like asingular act of political wizardry. In fact it was the result of amerit-based selection process, managed by experts in thebureaucracy, and hermetically protected from political meddling.

All to the good. It's high time. But what about the F-35? This purchase, sole-sourced to Lockheed-Martin, plagued by delays,technical glitches and cost overruns, and the subject of a scathingreview by the auditor-general earlier this year, is still on track,apparently come hell or high water. How can this be, if "thestatus quo is not an option?" Even within the rubric ofConservative policy the F-35 process looks, more with each passingday, like a moral and policy orphan. In the House of Commons this week, Liberal MP Marc Garneau askedwhether the government would ask the National Research Council todevelop a proper statement of operational requirements for the RCAFfighter replacement, as was eventually done with respect to thefixed-wing search-and-rescue contract.

In the latter case the NRCrewrote the requirements and made them"performance-based," thus ensuring no single aircraftmaker would have an unfair advantage. In the case of the F-35, there has never been a proper statement ofoperational requirements (SOR). The decision to buy the jet was made first; the SOR followed. Itshould have been the other way around.

Why not, as Garneausuggests, foist this problem on the NRC, have it draft a set ofrequirements that suit Canada's needs, throw that out to industry,and let the chips fall where they may? Here's what doesn't add up about the government's position, thusfar: Politically, it is a flat-out loser. It has been, for years.For opposition MPs, it has become the gift that keeps on giving.Because of the multi-year time horizon on any procurement of thiskind, it will necessarily continue to be. Prime Minister StephenHarper has historically not been one to stick to a position, onceit has proven politically untenable - witness his change of heartabout the international mission in Afghanistan. Why so stubborn? A charitable interpretation is the government does not wish to bedeemed a weak reed in the Western alliance. Having committeditself, government-to-government, to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter(JSF), and knowing the unit price for all depends on the totalnumber of aircraft sold, it wants to stand firm.

But at what cost? No contract has been signed with Lockheed-Martin. Industrial benefits from the F-35 notwithstanding, it stretchescredulity to suggest Canada's aerospace industry won't do at leastas well, or better, if there's an international bidding war for thework. So the question for Conservatives is this: At what point doespolitical self-preservation - not to mention the appearance of goodmanagement, and good management itself - override otherconsiderations? If they're going to shift, it may as well be now.\mdentandt.

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