By the time many of you read this column the federal election will have happened, and in all likelihood the Harper government will have won either a stronger minority or even a majority government.
In the run up to the federal election, the Conservative government announced a $1.1 billion upgrade of our navy’s frigates. Five of these frigates will be modernized at Washington Marine Group’s Victoria Shipyards.
This is good news for British Columbia and for Washington Marine Group, which has seen potential contracts to build a new generation of BC Ferries go to a German shipyard and contracts for Canadian navy supply ships and coast guard vessels cancelled.
It is worth noting that the unionized workers at Washington Marine Group earn less than their counterparts at shipyards in Europe and there is real concern that without more domestic shipbuilding contracts these skills will be lost
As a sovereign nation it is vitally important that we maintain a domestic shipbuilding industry. As the Arctic sea ice melts it is opening up Canada’s fabled North West passage and with it jurisdictional disputes with countries such as Denmark, Russia and the United States. Thus it would be foolish in the extreme for Canada to be reliant on the European Union, the United States and/or Russia to build the ships that we will require to assert our nation’s sovereignty.
Thus it is vitally important that the 12 ship Canadian Coastguard contract be put back on the table and the work divided up equitably amongst Canada’s remaining west and east coast shipyards. The recently announced construction of a new icebreaker, to be named after former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, should also be built in Canada.
There is also the issue of the multi-role ships that were meant to replace our navy’s aging supply vessels, be able to transport armed forces equipment personnel and serve as an assault vessel which could be used as an offshore base of operations. Requiring a ship to cover off such a diverse array or roles would be like trying to design an airplane that can simultaneously be a troop transport, a bomber and a fighter. Odds are it’s going to do all three jobs poorly.
Durable naval supply ships are something Canadian shipyards have built in the past and must continue to do so. Similarly vessels capable of transporting Canadian Armed Forces personnel can also be readily constructed by our domestic shipyard workers.
Failure to proceed with this work is not only undermining our nation’s sovereignty, it is also creating a significant human resources problem for Canada’s shipyards. What happens to the apprentices and journeypersons that the Victoria shipyard and unions have been training over the past five years? Without sufficient naval contract work they will likely end up leaving the industry.
Although the frigate refit program will provide $351 million in work to the Washington Marine Group, this work does not begin until 2010. If we are to retain these workers they need construction work now. The other problem is that you cannot build or maintain a first class shipyard only doing refit work.
That is why the proposed construction of 12 new ships for the Canadian Coastguard is so vitally important. As he gets back to work after a hard fought election campaign, Prime Minister Harper needs to make this issue one of his government’s top priorities.
Michael Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria, B.C. He can be contacted via his website at www.mgcltd.ca