Bluenose II sitting pretty in Lunenburg

The newly rebuilt Bluenose II sits at Lunenburg Foundry at the innermost part of the harbour. Sails and rigging make the job seem complete from a distance, though I’m sure there’s lots going on below decks. She’s a beauty.

Bluenose II
Bluenose II at Lunenburg Foundry, October 24, 2013.
Photo by Heather Holm

 

Lunenburg in 1939

This wonderful old footage of the Lunenburg waterfront in 1939 shows wooden sailboats, working dorys, and the fishermen of the time – grandfathers of today’s grandfathers. And fish. Lots of salt fish.

Nova Scotia’s Ships Have Come In: Thoughts on “Ships Start Here” and the Procurement Process

Ships Start Here campaign

So Nova Scotia’s ships have finally come in with the announcement that the federal contract for combat ships, worth $25 billion over 30 years, has been awarded to Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax over a Vancouver yard, which received an $8 contract for non-combat ships, and the Davie shipyard in Lévis, Quebec, which lost out.

Irving’s job postings are starting to appear in the Chronicle Herald.

It’s fantastic news for Nova Scotians. Kudos to the federal government for the impartial procurement process, and to Irving Shipbuilding as well as Premier Darrell Dexter and other proposal partners for their successful bid.

The news story leaves me with a couple of questions.

Why did the feds make such a big deal about the impartial, non-political procurement process? And why did Irving Shipbuilding and the Nova Scotia government spend $1.4 million on their public relations campaign, Ships Start Here, even though it would have no direct influence on whether Halifax got the contract?

Looking towards Halifax Shipyards

I don’t usually comment on political issues in this blog, but the answers I’ve come up with explain a lot about Nova Scotia and its relationship to the rest of Canada.

The federal government and the Navy have solid business reasons for wanting to choose the best shipyard for the job. You’d think that would go without saying, but it’s not always how things work in Canada.

In 1986, during the Mulroney era, a large team of technical experts recommended that an aircraft maintenance contract for CF-18 fighter jets go to Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg on account of their superior technology and lower bid. Instead, the contract was awarded to Canadair of Montreal.

As well as a poor business decision, the turnaround was a bad political decision. It contributed greatly to widespread disaffection with Canada in the west, the founding of the Reform Party and the demise of the federal Progressive Conservatives.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay lived this history and don’t want to repeat it, I’m sure.

Submarine in Halifax Harbour June 2010

Then there was the submarine maintenance contract, by which the crippled second-hand subs Canada bought to Halifax from Britain (with loss of life) were shipped at great expense to a BC yard with no experience in submarines.

No shipyard in the country is currently equipped build the state-of-the-art ships that the Navy wants for the future. Canada will be investing in the capacity of the chosen shipyards. Over the years, this type of federal government investment has contributed greatly to Ontario and Quebec’s prosperity, leaving provinces like Nova Scotia in the dust.

No amount of equalization payments can compensate for the resulting discrepancy in industrial capacity and general prosperity. However, Nova Scotia simply does not have enough seats in Parliament to matter when big federal contracts are assigned to meet political goals. And notwithstanding, Nova Scotia does not have to be seduced with such contracts to remain part of Canada.

It must have been obvious to everyone – from anyone involved in the shipbuilding industry, to the Navy, to civil servants and politicians – that Halifax Shipyards were “the only guys left standing with a full-fledged, functioning shipyard in the country.” to quote the Chronicle Herald’s Marilla Stephenson.  Shipbuilding is in Nova Scotia’s very bones, and symbolized by the image of Bluenose on the Canadian dime.

So why was there so much publicity about the process?

Halifax Shipyards in the distance. 2008.

Because the big contract could not be awarded to Nova Scotia without making a big deal about it being a fair, impartial, non-political process.

The Conservatives with their new majority could afford to do the right thing – at least now at the beginning of their mandate. The political fallout is concentrated in Québec, but that’s not Harper’s problem. And it’s mostly going on in French. As far as the federal Conservatives are concerned, the NDP can deal with it.

So if Irving and Nova Scotia’s Ships Start Here campaign did not influence the results, as Defence Minister Peter MacKay so generously pointed out, what did the $1.4 million spent on the campaign accomplish?

Navy ships sail past HRM The Queen in Halifax Harbour, June 2010. M. Sepulchre photo.

I haven’t discussed this issue with anyone in the know (please feel free to comment if you have anything to add), but this is how I see it:

1. Most importantly, without directly influencing the results, the campaign held the feds publicly accountable for keeping the process honest, now and for the length of the contract. Again, this was done with the certain knowledge that Halifax was the best qualified shipyard and would win one of the two contracts available as long as the awards were made fairly. No doubt the memory of the CF-18 maintenance debacle was vivid. This indirect influence was something like insurance.

2. The Ships Start Here campaign let Nova Scotians know that something big was afoot so they would take the news to heart when the time came. It fostered a positive, can-do attitude among Nova Scotians that can only be good for the local economy. Optimism in a time of recession is a powerful thing. The campaign website is full of stories of how the award will impact ordinary people.

3. The campaign attempted to mitigate potential criticism of the award by pointing out that because of subcontracts, the Halifax bid would in fact spread the money across the country more evenly than would any other bid.  The website makes such information readily available for media and commentators.

Canadian Navy ship in Halifax, June 2010

4. Recruitment is be one of the challenges to be met. The campaign served notice to skilled workers across the country that there would soon be jobs for them in Halifax.  Many Nova Scotians working away will be able to return home and work here for the rest of their careers.  Housing developers, health care managers and other sectors of the local economy are also taking the hint.

5. And of course, as cynics are quick to point out, it raised the profile of NDP Premier Darrell Dexter – and what politician wouldn’t enjoy that? I have no doubt that he personally paid close attention to this file.  With his history as a naval officer and the son of a sheet metal worker, seeing this contract awarded to Halifax must be very dear to his heart.

The Angus L. McDonald Bridge will be even busier.

Winning this contract is a bigger deal to Nova Scotia than it would have been to larger centres. It builds on the province’s traditional strengths, and will allow many homesick Maritimers to return home for well-paying jobs. The boost to the overall economy will be palpable. When I hear negative news about the world economy, surely I’m not the only Nova Scotian who thinks hopefully: “Nova Scotia will be ok. We’re building ships.”

What did you think of the contract award process? How will the shipbuilding contract affect you?

(Comments are moderated, so won’t appear immediately.)