IN THE NEWS ~ Provinces spar over shipbuilding booty

VANCOUVER SUN (FINAL), CANADA & WORLD, Page: B2

Provinces spar over shipbuilding booty
Mega contracts would mean jobs, industrial benefits for lucky MPs' ridings
Barbara Yaffe, Vancouver Sun

As Ottawa prepares to award two mega contracts for shipbuilding, a political bun fight has broken out regarding which provinces should get the $33-billion booty.

Both the Conservative government and New Democrats initially declared the process must be free of political shenanigans, with the contracts being awarded transparently, purely on merit. But this is Canada. And there are four bids in a contest that will see only two provinces receive the thousands of jobs and industrial benefits that will flow from the work.

Last week, several New Democrats from Quebec suggested the process is being too rushed to allow their province a fair shot in the bidding process. That prompted B.C. cabinet minister Ed Fast to step forward: "I don't know where the NDP is coming from. We had hoped the whole process would be clear of political interference."

NDP press secretary Marc-Andre Viau defended his party's politicking: "Our Quebec City MPs want sustainable shipbuilding jobs for the region." The fussing flows from a June 2010 announcement of Ottawa's National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.

Under it, Public Works is to parcel out two contract bundles: a $25-billion deal for big vessels, and an $8-billion one for smaller vessels, with winning shipyards to be chosen by the end of the summer. That is, four bidders -in Vancouver; Levis, Que.; St. Catharines, Ont.; and Halifax -will be winnowed to two. Seaspan Marine, on the West Coast, is considered a fair bet to secure one of the contracts. But politicians lately have begun sparring over whether Nova Scotia or Quebec ought to get the other.

If politics were kept at bay, Nova Scotia would be the more logical pick because Quebec's MIL-Davie shipyard has had financial difficulties. The Levis shipyard was taken over in March by an Italian consortium, Finmeccanica. Ottawa moved a bidding deadline set for July 7 to July 21 to accommodate requests for more time, made by two of the bidders. They wanted the deadline pushed back to Sept. 12.

While there's a whack of confidentiality surrounding the bidding process, it's understood the Quebec shipyard, struggling to get its affairs in order, and the St. Catharines bidder requested the delay. It's not a big surprise that New Democrats have inserted themselves into the process, with 59 of their MPs representing Quebec. Nor is it a surprise that Conservatives are calling them on it. The matter is delicate for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's party.

Conservatives managed in May to win only five Quebec seats, most in exactly the region that would reap the benefit from any contract. It won't look good for Conservatives to have New Democrats fighting for Quebecers while their MPs remain silent. For that reason, the government wanted to keep politics out of the process.

No such luck. "Steven Blaney is the [Conservative] MP and federal minister for Levis," Quebec New Democrat Tom Mulcair said in a recent interview. Then, accusingly, "He's doing nothing on the file. Where is [Conservative] Denis Lebel on the file? Where is [Conservative] Christian Paradis?"

B.C. NDP MP Peter Julian says the Harper crowd is playing "partisan games with procurement and regional job creation, which is unfortunate."

He says the Conservatives have set up "a competition that unnecessarily pitted region against region."

As for New Democrats, it's not just a fight over regional benefits. The party also wants shipbuilding contracts put off-limits to European bidders under a new free trade agreement Canada is negotiating with the EU.

byaffe@vancouversun.com