Ships founder here

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Ships founder here might have been a better slogan.

I’m not oblivious to the impact the shipbuilding contract, if fulfilled in full, would have on our region. It’s a lot of money. But we mustn’t pretend money spent on building ships – and given to the Irvings – is free: it’s money that would be in our pockets and the pockets of our fellow Canadians if it weren’t being used to build ships. So, as a financial scheme it is, at best, an equalization payment, siphoning money from one part of Canada into another.

Not all government spending is bad, of course. Environmental auditing of big industries is a vital function, as is oversight of the delivery of medical and educational services, and funding for both. And we need money for compassionate causes, policing, fire services, et cetera.

That ‘et cetera’ includes defense. I am not a pacifist. I am, however, a pragmatist. We should have exactly the defense capabilities required to protect our interests and nothing more.

Colin Kenny isn’t the first commentator to point out a flaw in the ship procurement plan:

The arctic patrol vessels have been under attack from day one. Granted, any procurement plan – even the right one – will suffer criticism. That is the nature of a free society. But numbers are hard to evade. And a factual statement like “they will only be able to operate in summer” should be easy for the government to disprove if it’s wrong.

My guess is the critics are right on this one. The counter argument might be that the commercial shipping that might start using Arctic waters would only do so in summer, so the patrol vessels only need to operate in summer. If that’s the case, though, they shouldn’t be navy ships, but coast guard vessels. Navy ships are for war fighting, and a tool built for an environment it can only operate in for a fraction of the year is a bad tool.

I happen to think Kenny is right: we don’t need warfighting capability in the north – not now, at least. If what we need is simply a law enforcement arm that can operate in arctic waters, then let’s build arctic patrol vessels but to the specifications of the coast guard, and let’s have new coast guard icebreakers so we have water-borne access to the far north whatever the reason or season.

Kenny and I diverge, though, on what we think Canada needs for its southern waters. He might be happy to see money being spent building warships to replace our aging naval fleet – the impression I get is that he’d like more of the contract’s funds directed that way – but I am not. I am unconvinced Canada needs a naval force that can project power far beyond our shores.

Global conditions may change, and we can respond if that’s the case. Make no mistake, in the event of war, arms procurement suddenly becomes much simpler; Canada went from a tiny naval force to one of the world’s largest in just a few years in the Second World War.

Under current conditions, though, money spent building a handful of state-of-the-art warships could build many more coast guard cutters, as well as replacing our aging S&R helicopter fleet.

For that matter, the biggest water-borne threats to Canada today are in our harbours, where countless containers holding who knows what go uninspected after they’re dropped on our shores.

The shipbuilding contract is largely a make work project. Granted, the people getting the work are happy for it, and who can blame them? But as a Canadian and as a taxpayer, I need to ask two questions: Did they get the shopping list right? And, if not, is there somewhere else we need to spend that money, or can we give it back to taxpayers.

I say ‘no’ to question one and ‘maybe’ to both parts of two.

P.S. Not that this is a secret, but I’m probably flogging a dead seahorse. I’ll be surprised if even half the contract actually materializes in anything like the planned timeline. 


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