Friday, September 28, 2007

Subs look like very expensive lemons

I mostly write about provincial issues, but every now and then something comes along that's too bizarrely interesting to ignore.
This time, it's Canada's submarines. I've made some misguided purchases in my day, but never anything that looked quite so dramatically flawed.
HMCS Victoria is in drydock here and the Victoria Times Colonist's report on the state of the sub had a decidedly surreal quality.
The Victoria is one of the four used submarines Canada bought from Britan in 1998, taking delivery in 2000. The plan was to spend six months getting it ready for service in Halifax and then set out to sea.
But the six months stretched into three years, The sub sailed for Esquimalt, its home base, arriving with flags flying and a band waiting dockside to celebrate.
Then it went straight into 10 more months of repairs for new problems.
It sailed for a few months at sea, and then a fire on a sister sub, the Chicoutimi, killed a sailor on its voyage from England. The Victoria was pulled from service for another seven months.
The sub was ready to sail again by May 2005. But by the fall it was into drydock here for what was supposed to be a two-year repair program. It should have been back at sea by now.
But the Times Colonist reported the navy is now hoping for a 2009 launch. Making the submarine usable and safe is going to take almost four years - twice as long as planned.
The submarines cost almost $790 million when Canada bought them. There's no ready tally of the money sunk into them since, but the Victoria repairs have more than equalled the purchase price.
Since Canada took possession in October 2000, the HMCS Victoria has actually been in service for 115 days.
For every day of use, there have been three weeks of repairs and refitting.
By the time the sub is ready to go - if it meets the new deadline - it will have been out of service 96.5 per cent of the time since delivery.
It doesn't seem like a success story. In seven years, the HCMS Victoria has actually been used for its intended purpose for four months. The rest of the time the repair bills have been mounting.
What's weird is that no one seems particularly perturbed that we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on submarines that mostly haven't worked.
The Victoria is not an anomaly. Only one of the three other submarines is functioning. The Chicoutimi has been tied up since the fire; work will start on a major overhaul after the Victoria is done in 2009.
And these repairs and delays weren't part of the plan. When the navy bought the used submarines - which had been mothballed by Britain for four years - officers talked about them being in service by the end of 2001.
But the politicians, the public, seem remarkably understanding about what looks like a bad deal.
What makes it even more worrying is that the Canadian forces, in part because of the new combat role in Afghanistan and in part because of the supportive Conservative government, appear about to go on a shopping spree. They're looking at new fighters, a $4-billion purchase. New transport and search-and-rescue aircraft, $3.2 billion. A long list from the Navy. Drones,artillery, trucks tanks - again, a second-hand deal.
All in, the price tag is something like $22 billion and counting. Given the experience with the submarines, that should make a lot of Canadians nervous.
Especially because there seems some confusion about just what the equipment is for - whether the government is preparing Canada for a succession of overseas wars like the one in Afghanistan.
I'm sure buying used subs is tricky. But by any objective standards - including the ones the government and Canadian forces brass set when they bought the ships - this has gone wildly off the rails.
Footnote: So why submarines, anyway? Are we going to be sinking interlopers in Canadian waters? Or heading off to countries unknown to spy on their fleets? "Submarines excel at defending, surveillance and intelligence gathering," Sen.
Colin Kenny offered earlier this year. "Even with modern technology, submarines are difficult to detect. The mere presence of submarines defending Canada's coasts is a deterrent to potentially hostile vessels."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Harper’s vagueness on big issues disappointing

I’m getting the feeling Stephen Harper just doesn’t trust us.
On two critical issues - the war in Afghanistan and climate change – Harper is unwilling to just say what he thinks Canada should do and let us judge whether he’s picking the right course.
It’s like we’re not quite smart enough, and the government needs to coax us along until we see the right way — his way.
Harper headed to New York this week to a United Nations conference aimed at saving the Kyoto Protocol - or at least developing an updated version.
He could have offered a clear vision, even one that argued that efforts to reduce greenhouse gases shouldn’t be allowed to hurt economic growth. That’s a legitimate position.
Instead, his 500-word speech was full of platitudinous generalities. (It’s online at the One of the many great things about the Internet is that you don’t have to rely on people like me to assess such things; you can read them yourselves in three or four minutes and form your own judgments.)
The purpose of the meeting was to come up with a successor to the 1998 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
But Harper didn’t actually utter the word Kyoto — not to support the agreement, or to say it was too tough, or unrealistic.
The message, basically, was that every country should try hard to reduce emissions and Canada would do its bit.
“There is an emerging consensus on the need for a new, effective and flexible climate change framework, one that commits all the world’s major emitters to real targets and concrete action against global greenhouse-gas emissions,” Harper said.
What does that mean, in the language of real people? Do you pay attention to “flexible,” or “real targets?” Or is it just politican-talk?
At the same time, Harper revealed Canada was joining an alternate climate-change coalition that
t includes the U.S, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea. That group has rejected mandatory targets for greenhouse-gas emissions.
It’s a big shift away from a UN-backed climate-change plan with hard commitments, towards a much softer approach. (Canada was also set to participate in a U.S.-led greenhouse-gas conference this week.)
Our government wants a shift from absolute greenhouse-gas reduction commitments to intensity-based targets. If Alberta is increasing oilsands production, then greenhouse-gas emissions should be allowed to increase, Harper says. The goal should just be to reduce emissions per barrel of oil production.
Perhaps the Harper government does not believe a UN agreement to replace Kyoto is necessary, or in Canada’s interests. Perhaps it is opposed in principle to strict emission limits as a threat to the economy.
But in any case, the government — elected in January 2006 — should be ready to set out its position for Canadians.
Harper’s stance on our forces’ role in the war in Afghanistan is just as unclear.
Earlier this month Defence Minister Peter Mackay said NATO had already been told not to count on Canada’s participation in its current role when the mission ends in February 2009. His officials rushed to say he didn’t mean it.
This week, Mackay said the government will tell NATO whether Canada will extend the combat mission by next April.
That would leave the alliance just 10 months to find a replacement or adjust its battle plans. Given the reluctance of any other NATO nations to accept a combat role, that’s irresponsible.
Again, the government must have a position on the future of the mission. Why not trust Canadians, set out its policy and begin the debate?
Certainly, there is likely political advantage in delay. But Harper was elected in part because Canadians were tired of governments that put political advantage ahead of straight talk. He was supposed to be the straight guy, after Mulroney, Chretien and Martin. The one who trusted us.
And right now, it’s hard to feel trusted by this government.
Footnote: One factor in all this is the potential for an election if the opposition parties decide to defeat the government when Parliament resumes sitting next month, with the climate change and the war likely key issues. Vagueness can work well in election campaigns, unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Another big gift, from you to a forest company

It didn’t take Western Forest Products long to cash in on the big gift the government handed the company earlier this year.
It wasn’t really from the government. Taxpayers and Vancouver Island communities actually paid for the present. Forests Minister Rich Coleman just wrapped it up and handed it over on your behalf.
Western Forest Products has announced it plans to put 4,450 acres of great real estate on the market. The land includes waterfront property along the coast west of Victoria – the kind of real estate that will have people lining up, waving their chequebooks.
That’s just the first step. All in, Western Forest Products has 70,000 acres available for sale, much of it with good development potential. Waterfront lots adjacent to some of the land are selling at $400,000 an acre.
This time last year, the company couldn’t likely have sold a single acre. The land was part of the its Vancouver Island tree farm licence, That meant it was managed as if it was Crown land, with higher environmental and forest sustainability standards. Raw log exports were limited.
And the tree farm licence required that the land stay in forestry, so there would be trees and jobs a hundred years from now.
But in February, Coleman ordered the land removed from the tree-farm licence. The company needed help, he said. The government was willing to sacrifice the public interests protected by the tree farm licence to give a break to the shareholders.
Western Forest Products was quick to take advantage of the chance. It has just put out “for sale” signs on 4,450 acres, including big stretches of the Pacific coast between Victoria and Jordan River, a popular surfing and camping spot.
There’s a good argument that the highest-value use for the land is housing for rich retirees. Certainly that’s what’s WFP has decided.
But there are a couple of problems here. First, the people of B.C. paid a big price to have those lands included in the tree farm licences. Back in the 1950s the provincial government was keen to get companies to roll their private land holdings into their licences. The government thought that way the land would be managed for the long-term benefit of British Columbians and the future of the forest industry would be protected.
And it was willing to pay to make sure that happened. The government figured out what the companies would lose by including the land in their tree farm licences, and awarded them the equivalent value in Crown timber.
But when the current government agreed to release the land from the tree-farm licences, it didn’t ask Western Forest Products for any compensation. Coleman didn’t even ask the company to donate a portion of the land for parks.
There was no consultation with the affected communities, who were not only suddenly facing big development pressures but also a serious loss of jobs. As the forestland based is reduced, the industry has to shrink.
This is the second time the Liberal government has enriched a forest company at public expense. In 2004, Weyerhaeuser asked the government to let it take 220,000 acres out of its tree farm licences, much of it around Port Alberni. The benefits to the company would be huge – an extra $18 million to $24 million a year in extra profits, plus the ability to sell of the land for real estate. Figure a $200-million gain for the corporation.
But what about the public? The ministry prepared briefing notes on the request. The officials assumed Weyerhaeuser would pay taxpayers compensation if the land was removed.
Even with that assumption, the senior ministry staff recommended that the government say no. Communities and workers considered the tree farm agreement a “social contract” that ensured local areas benefited from the forests and that sustainable management would mean jobs for their children, they told the minister. (That concern was prescient; the change allowed more log exports, cost local jobs and has resulted in logging practices that residents say have damaged the environment.)
But the politicians ignored the advice of the ministry professionals and gave the company what it wanted.
Now Coleman has done it again.