The NDP's critic for procurement says MPs should conduct an inquiry into federal purchasing practices.

Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir is making the call after CBC News reported how frequently the government invokes national security exceptions for information technology (IT) contracts.

Many companies complain the government wrongly, and routinely, applies the measure on high-value contracts for everything from parkas and binoculars to email services and a supercomputer. 

Indeed, the quietly-awarded $430-million contract for a powerful new weather-forecasting computer for Environment Canada was subject to a national security exception. In its submissions to Federal Court and the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, unsuccessful bidder Hewlett-Packard Canada argues the exception was inappropriate.

In applying the exception, the government is exempt from all domestic and international trade agreements, which means companies not invited to bid on a contract, or who are are disqualified from a competition, have very limited opportunities for appeal. According to documents filed at Federal Court, the purpose of invoking national security exceptions is to protect the supply chain from cyber threats. 

Shared Services Canada says it cannot comment because the matter is before the courts.

"It is very concerning to think the government might be over-using the national security exception for procurement," Weir told CBC News.

"Obviously there are cases where something is very sensitive and the government needs to buy it without going through an open and transparent competition, but we really trust the government to use that exception sparingly and only when necessary," said the Regina-Lewvan MP.

National security exceptions

According to government documents and emails filed at Federal Court, the federal government's IT department, Shared Services Canada, asked for and received blanket approval in the spring of 2012 to invoke a national security exception on virtually all its big purchases.

The House of Commons committee that oversees government procurement is currently studying Shared Services Canada. Weir says it only makes sense the committee expand its investigation to the department's use — or over-use — of national security exceptions.

"It only makes sense that we would try to talk to Shared Services, government procurement officials as well as the companies that have brought forward these complaints and concerns to try to get to the bottom of it," said Weir.

As for Hewlett-Packard, the Canadian International Trade Tribunal has agreed to investigate its complaint and a ruling is expected early next year.