Seriously?

The Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report
on the navy’s next-generation warship program on Wednesday … and you’ve all stopped reading already, haven’t you? Hello?
Matt Gurney, National Post

Of all the boring topics in government, and there are many, procurement must surely be near the top: The most boring, I mean.

No one would blame you if you had [stopped reading].
Because you’ve read how many stories like this before?
Under how many governments, going back how many years?

I spent 30 years selling technical services to government clients and even I can’t get too interested in it.

Do you even need the details? You know how this goes.
What are the ships going to cost? More.
When are we going to get them? Later.
Will the ships we currently have last that long? Maybe.
Is the entire program now in doubt
and possibly facing cancellation
so we can reboot and try again?
No one has said as much, but it’s a very real possibility.

Let’s not get distracted by partisanship. It goes well beyond the current government, as Matt Gurney can attest. Poor baby, he’s enjoyed about as much writing about government procurement as he can stand.

I’ve spent years writing about this stuff.
I’ve written more about this stuff
than anything else in my career.
And I have to confess
that I’m nearly out of fresh wisdom to offer.
Canada. Cannot. Procure.
That’s it. That’s the column.

Well, if that’s really it, that’s not OK. It’s not OK that Canada’s government cannot procure the equipment they themselves have decided is necessary to national defence.

The world is evolving in dangerous ways
that our abysmal military procurement system
simply can’t keep up with.

And it goes beyond procurement, as this long article argues. My version? Our governments struggle to operate a health care system they prevent anyone else from operating. To build a pipeline they bought. To reconcile with Indigenous Canadians suffering under a legal framework maintained by . . . the government. To close an international border they and they alone control (and have it be, you know, closed).

And it goes beyond (not) getting things done to (not) thinking things through. This week the federal cabinet sent one of their number to the House of Commons “to abstain on their behalf” — a constitutional rudeness/absurdity/impossibility — from a vote declaring that China’s undisputed abuse of the Uyghurs rises to the level of genocide. Reasonable people might coherently argue different positions on that determination, but the cabinet’s action seems incoherent.

If Trudeau’s goal was to display a commitment to the principles of international law, the sight of the entire cabinet refusing to even show up to vote was a colossal embarrassment.

And if he wanted to satisfy China and the business interests that push to keep the trade flowing despite the concentration camps, or to secure the release of the two Canadian hostages in Chinese prison, then an unwhipped 266-0 result in the House was hardly the way to get there.

Notwithstanding the empty front bench, the Chinese are already fuming at Canada. It’s hard to decipher the strategy here, or to determine if there was one at all.
Kaveh Shahrooz, Macdonald-Larier Institute

In this environment, it might seem silly to cavil at a little thing like a failed procurement, even if that afflicts the whole system. But it is all of a piece.

If we don’t take it seriously when and wherever our governments fail, then we don’t take government seriously. In a dangerous world, that would be a mistake.

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11 Responses to Seriously?

  1. Pingback: On a Happier Note | Traditional Iconoclast

  2. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – here’s something to consider. Do you think that Canada’s problems with respect to military procurement, health care provision and so on is the result of the Canadian character? Most Canadians take it as an article of faith that inequality is bad and that everyone should be treated equally. In real life, inequality is common and people are often treated unequally. Trying to match that article of faith and real life inequalities to procurement or services delivery results in frequent delays and cost over runs as the government tries to remove the inequalities that exist in real life so that all Canadians and all regions are treated equally. In many cases, when articles of faith and real life can’t be made to mesh, the fallback decision is, “Let’s study it some more.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I don’t know whether a commitment to equality is the underlying principle driving so many less-than-stellar outcomes, but it’s my belief that we are using our procurement system to achieve socio-economic objectives and losing not just sight of its purpose but achievement of its purpose.

      • John Whitman says:

        Isabel – I think we are saying more or less the same thing. Aren’t socio-economic policies intended to correct inequalities?

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          John – I think you’re right: we pretty much agree. Socio-economic policies certainly can be intended to reduce inequality – as well as to win votes. Adding extraneous objectives to any activity likely lessens effectiveness and efficiency with respect to its prime mission.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    We did fairly well building frigates and minesweepers and other relatively small naval vessels during WWII. What made the difference? Was it someone else’s design that we just duplicated? Was someone else in charge?
    Or can we blame all of this on the legacy of John Diefenbaker cancelling the Arrow program, where we really did outshine the rest of the world for a while?
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I don’t know why things happened during WWII. Needs must when the devil drives? And yet the devil is driving again and we seem to be sitting down with our hands folded. I’m seeing some signs that people are starting to say, hey. But I suspect that it will be easy to forget all this once everyone is vaccinated.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – With respect to Jim’s comment about what made the difference. It may be worth remembering that the term ‘political correctness’ was not a factor for consideration during WW II procurement. “There’s a war on, you know!”, was the order of the day.
    Also, weapons systems are much more complicated today, and Canada doesn’t have the in-house experience related to modern weapons systems. Back in 1988 when I was in Staff College, one of our speakers made that point. He used the WW II era Spitfire MK XXV as an example. At the end of WW II Canada had the expertise to design and build every component of a Spitfire Mk XXV. By comparison, Canada had the ability to design and manufacture about 1% of the then newly acquired CF-18s.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Thanks, John. That’s useful context. Maybe we couldn’t have kept up with the increase in complexity but it looks a lot like we didn’t try.

      • John Whitman says:

        If you are a small country with respect to population and with an equally small armed forces; and you are intent on becoming the world’s boy scout/peacekeeper under UN auspices, maintaining a large military-industrial capability is hard to justify.
        Unfortunately, large countries with large armed forces quickly get tired of being told what to do by light-weight countries. Then when those light-weight countries try to play in the big leagues of military procurement it gets difficult and expensive due to lack of experience, despite all the best intentions in the world.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          John – Yes, as someone may have mentioned to me, the first principle of war (or, indeed, of any activity) is to establish and maintain the aim. And maybe the second is to get real about what it will cost and decide whether you’re willing to pay it.

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