Why the Liberals really don't want to talk about leasing icebreakers

The Trudeau government may be reluctant to talk about its plan to lease icebreakers because it could renew the focus on the struggles of the National Shipbuilding Strategy - and could even echo Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's defence on a charge of breach of trust.

The leasing arrangement bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the deal that brought Vice-Admiral Norman down

The Coast Guard research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen. (Christopher Paetkau/Submitted)

It was one of those rare displays of opposition unanimity in the House of Commons that aren't flashy, but are definitely hard to ignore.

On at least three occasions last week, a member of the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Groupe Parlementaire Québécois (the splintered remains of the Bloc Quebecois) rose to ask basically the same question:

Whatever became of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's sudden pledge last January to acquire Coast Guard icebreakers through the Chantier Davie shipyard in Levis, Que.?

The replies from the Liberal side tended to be the typical question period non-answer: We continue our negotiations.

The complete answer could prove politically uncomfortable for the governing Liberals — which explains the banal obfuscation.

"We will not do the negotiations here in the House," Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough said.

Small wonder.

Royal Canadian Navy Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (left) speaks with Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd during a change of command ceremony, Thursday, June 23, 2016 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On its surface, the arrangement under "negotiation" bears a striking resemblance — in procurement terms — to the deal that brought down the country's second-highest military commander, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

He was accused of leaking secret cabinet deliberations related to the last federal contract — a $668 million deal — struck with the Chantier Davie yard.

Norman will appear in court next week to face one charge of breach of trust.

The inability of the once highly-touted National Shipbuilding Strategy to produce supply ships for the navy in a timely manner no doubt will be one the pillars of his defence.

A hopelessly broken procurement system?

The fact that the Liberals, who once questioned the utility of the former Conservative government's plan to lease a navy supply ship, are now negotiating their own rental of light icebreakers — from the same yard — speaks volumes to some analysts.

If Norman intends to argue that the system is hopelessly broken, the prime minister's seemingly out-of-the-blue pledge in Quebec City back in January effectively makes the point for him.

"In terms of the broader objective of what Admiral Norman and some others were working towards, which was getting ships one way or another, the government is today faced with that same dynamic in icebreaking," said Dave Perry, an expert in procurement with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The Liberals, he said, have discovered the options for getting ships in the water when they are not actively being built — or when the building is hopelessly behind schedule — are "relatively finite" under the country's marquee shipbuilding program.

That strategy, devised by the Conservatives in 2010, designated Vancouver's Seaspan as the civilian builder of federal vessels, including the navy's permanent supply ships and icebreakers. Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax is the prime contractor in warship construction.

Chantier-Davie is outside of the official program and Norman's quest to get the navy a temporary supply ship had no end of opponents within the federal bureaucracy.

Those same forces may very well be at work in the new icebreaker "negotiations."

Industry sources close to the deal said there have been a number of meetings with federal officials, but no clear progress so far.

Lease or buy?

Apparently, the Liberal government has yet to settle on whether it wants to lease — or purchase outright — as many as four icebreakers, which were built originally for the oil and gas industry but are now available through Chantier-Davie.

As with the naval supply ship project, opponents have quietly argued that the leasing scheme weakens the federal strategy.

Elinor Sloan, a former policy analyst at National Defence, dismissed that argument and said there's more than enough work to go around.

"I don't think awarding small icebreakers would undermine the National Shipbuilding Strategy, because right now Seaspan and Irving have decades of work lined up ahead of them," said Sloan, who is now a professor of international relations at Carleton University.

There are serious capability gaps within the federal fleets that need to be addressed, said both Sloan and Perry.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.