Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: What went wrong with the Bluenose II?

CBC's political analyst Graham Steele reflects on what went wrong with the Bluenose II rebuild, which is two years late and millions of dollars over budget.

The government is not in the wooden shipbuilding business, Steele argues

The Bluenose II was supposed to return to regular sailing in the summer of 2012 after an extensive two-year rebuild. (CBC)

The Bluenose II is turning heads again, but for the wrong reasons.

Two years late and millions over budget, the restoration project is rapidly becoming a symbol of government waste — and we're not even sure what the final cost will be or if the vessel is fit to sail.

How did we get here?

The Bluenose II was built by Oland Brewery in 1963 as a promotional vehicle. After Oland's was taken over by another brewery in 1971, the ship was gifted to the province.

The ship sailed on under provincial ownership until 1994, when the Liberal government declined to pay for an estimated $1 million in repairs and announced the ship would be decommissioned. A citizens' group, led by Willie Moore, stepped in to raise money. The Bluenose II lived to sail another day.

As recently as 2006, the Progressive Conservative government said the Bluenose II was in great shape and, with appropriate maintenance, would be able to sail for many years to come.

Then in 2009 the federal government rode in with a big bag of money — and everything changed.

After the global financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, the federal government established a program of economic stimulus spending. They wanted projects that were "shovel ready." The emphasis was on speed and putting people to work.

For cash-strapped provinces, the 50/50 cost sharing was too good to pass up.

Contracts awarded in December 2009

In May 2009, just before a provincial election, the Progressive Conservative government — the same ones who had pronounced the Bluenose II fit to sail for many years — announced the restoration of the vessel was on the list of stimulus projects.

I imagine the thinking was pretty simple: the work had to be done sometime and we might as well take advantage of the cost sharing deal.

After the dust settled from the election, it was the New Democratic Party in government. The Treasury Board, of which I was a member, gave the project the green light.

Contracts were awarded in December 2009 at an estimated total cost of $14.4 million, and estimated completion in 2011. The emphasis was on jobs, jobs, jobs. 

Like many government projects that go awry, it seemed like a good idea at the time. There were two forces favouring a green light. The Bluenose II is an icon. And that cost sharing deal.

Looking back, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, we could have asked tougher questions.

The first question we might have asked was: why are we building a wooden ship at all?

Governments doing too much

The government is in the health business, the education business, the roads business. It is not in the wooden shipbuilding business. My time in politics has persuaded me that our governments are doing far too much.

They can't handle the bewildering variety of programs they're already trying to administer, never mind taking on new responsibilities — especially an oddball responsibility like building a wooden ship.

Another question the Treasury Board might have asked was: how confident are we the project will be on time and on budget?

Anybody who has done a kitchen renovation knows how easy it is for a project to go over budget and over time. Most homeowners have no previous experience with a kitchen renovation. And once the kitchen is torn apart, you can't simply call the whole thing off.

The same risks were present in the Bluenose II project. It's been a very long time since such a large wooden vessel was built in Nova Scotia. Nobody involved with the project had personal experience in building wooden sailing vessels the size of the Bluenose II.

The private sector built the Bluenose II in 1963 and the private sector repaired it in 1994.

We should have let the private sector rebuild it.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.