Nova Scotia

Stakes are high for Dexter over shipbuilding bid

Political stakes are high as Ottawa prepares to pore over bids later this month for $35 billion worth of navy shipbuilding contracts that would lift the economic sails of the winning province.

Political stakes are high as Ottawa prepares to pore over bids later this month for $35 billion worth of navy shipbuilding contracts that would lift the economic sails of the winning province.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter has been campaigning vigorously for a $25-billion shipbuilding contract. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
And perhaps no politician has more riding on the outcome than Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who has lobbied vigorously in an attempt to boost the case for the Irving-owned shipyard in Halifax.

Dexter's efforts to win the lucrative deal began in May, when he launched a campaign so carefully choreographed that it fell on the same day two economic studies were released that sang the praises of Nova Scotia's bid.

His government launched a website and took to Twitter in a way it rarely has, if ever, to encourage Nova Scotians to back a bid he describes as the only one that would benefit Canada as a whole.

He has enlisted the support of New Brunswick Premier David Alward and his Prince Edward Island counterpart Robert Ghiz, as well as those of his provincial political rivals, to win a $25-billion piece of the pie that would result in the construction of 20 large combat vessels.

Within a three-week span, Dexter met with federal officials in Ottawa twice to extol the virtues of Halifax's shipyard.

Even downtown Ottawa is plastered with posters promoting Nova Scotia's bid.

Tom Urbaniak, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, said he can't recall Dexter coming out as strong for any cause as he has for this one.

Smart strategy

"Politically, it is a smart strategy," said Urbaniak. "Even if the shipbuilding contracts are not awarded to Irving ... at least the premier has the consolation prize of having fought the good fight so to speak."

Urbaniak said Dexter would have been more politically vulnerable if he had just sat on the sidelines.

"Some very difficult questions would be asked if Nova Scotia were not successful in the bidding process and if there had not been some strident lobbying by the premier," he said.

Three other shipyards are in the race ahead of the July 21 bid deadline, including Seaspan Marine Inc. in Vancouver, Seaway Marine and Industrial of St. Catharines, Ont., and the Davie Yards  in Levis, Que.

The federal Public Works department postponed the deadline by two weeks after two shipyards requested a two-month extension. Nova Scotia and British Columbia were quick to make it known they did not ask for the delay and voiced their opposition to the request.

Dexter later said he welcomed Ottawa's decision to reject the two-month delay.

Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding Inc. is one of four shipyards competing for a $25-billion shipbuilding contract. (CBC)
Federal officials said the two-week delay would increase competitiveness and not incur costs.

A final decision is expected in September.

Dexter, who has characterized the shipbuilding procurement program as the province's biggest industrial opportunity since Confederation, signalled his government's intention to champion the Irving bid in its March 31 throne speech.

At the time, he said it was important for Nova Scotia to launch a lobbying effort as vigorous  as those in other provinces competing for the contracts or it wouldn't get the required attention from federal bureaucrats.

Dan Middlemiss, an expert on politics and defence issues at Dalhousie University, also believes Dexter has played his cards right politically, but he wonders just how effective any public pronouncements will be in the end.

"The short answer is we don't really know because the lobbying that is the most effective according to analysts is that which you never see," Middlemiss said.

"It's the direct contacts behind the scene."

Last month, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced that the federal government wants lobbyists excluded from the process. But the official registry of lobbyists lists at least 62 shipbuilding-related meetings involving politicians and senior bureaucrats since the procurement program was announced a year ago.

And Dexter has said he would expect lobbying to continue, despite Ambrose's announcement, due to the sheer number of lobbyists in Ottawa.

Middlemiss agrees, saying completely cutting lobbying out of military procurement would be like "trying to take oxygen out of the atmosphere."

Urbaniak said there was one possible downside for Dexter, however —  the perception outside the Nova Scotia capital that his government has done little to help economically depressed areas in the rural corners of the province.

He pointed to the Yarmouth area, where the government scrapped an annual provincial subsidy of $6 million to fund continuation of a ferry service to Maine, and to Cape Breton, which has called for more government services and investment in their region.

"Of course the premier will make the argument that a boost of this magnitude (shipbuilding) ... will have a positive impact on the whole province," Urbaniak said.

"But that message doesn't resonate that strongly outside the Halifax orbit."