Thursday, August 28, 2008

Build it first; Name it after

Harper is getting a little ahead of himself here.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper summoned up the jowly ghost of one of his Conservative predecessors Thursday, announcing that John Diefenbaker would be both the name of Canada's new anywhere, anytime icebreaker and the inspiration for his vision of Arctic development.
Yes, well there's only one problem. Nobody has even started cutting steel for this non-existent icebreaker.

Although, the "name" is rather appropriate, don't you think? I mean, Diefenbaker was the Conservative who started a tradition of introducing big projects and then cancelling them before they were finished. Say, AVRO Arrow.

And I can see where Harper gets his inspiration. Dief could spin a lie with the best of them. Say, BOMARC. And, if you're so inclined, listen to Dief tell you how rosy things were going to be.

In the end, the RCAF ended up with U.S. supplied F-101 Voodoos (which remained in service until the Trudeau government replaced them with F-18 Hornets) and highly dubious BOMARC-B missiles under U.S. control. But I digress.

Harper, in declaring Diefenbaker his inspiration, may be trying to duplicate what Dief pulled off in 1958. Diefenbaker was uncomfortable with his minority government and called a snap election. His slogan for that campaign? Canada of the North, and he proceded to shovel tax money off the back of a truck for northern development and subsidies.


There is, however, something Diefenbaker did during that campaign which Harper is never likely to do: Diefenbaker increased funding to social programs, a move which a majority of Canadians welcomed. It got Dief his majority (a big honkin' majority) and then he led Canada into an ugly recession. He ended up firing the Governor of the Bank of Canada, (with whom he disagreed on economic and monetary policy), further exacerbating the economic problems of the country and virtually killing off foreign investment in a tattered Canadian industry.

Anyway, back to this yet-to-be-built icebreaker. Don't count on this happening too soon. The Harperites have already underfunded the program and, unless they're prepared to cough up more money, a lot more money, it's going to go the way of the navy's Joint Support Ships.

The last Conservative fiasco around this very same type of ship goes back to the last Conservative government, led by Brian Mulroney. In 1987 they were pounding their chests telling us all that we were going north with the largest conventional icebreaker in the world. But they had seriously under-estimated the actual costs, having allocated only $320 million in 1985 for the project. It was known by experts in 1986 that the cost was more like $750 million. So, when the prime contractor told the government that it would take more than twice what the government had allocated to complete such a ship, (which was only a lofted plan at this point), Mulroney cancelled the project.

How much have the Conservatives allocated for the newest attempt at an icebreaker? Why, $720 million, virtually the same amount it would have cost to build the Polar 8 in 1989. Since then, the cost of building the same vessel today, with improvements of course, would be in the neighbourhood of $1.4 billion.

Predicition: This ship will never be built. If the Conservatives continue in government there will be a late Friday night announcement and it will die, although the minister making the announcement will state that the government remains committed to the project.

This all so fits. Harper naming empty air and vacant northern seascapes with a name that started a Conservative legacy of grand ideas and failed capital projects. But at least it has a name; the right name. Because when it gets cancelled because "costs have unexpectedly exceeded the allocation" we can smile and say, It's what Diefenbaker would have done.

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