Winner or Disaster?

I mentioned, earlier today, that Canada needs to decide, soon, on a new fighter aircraft, to replace the venerable but still combat worthy CF-18s. I even included a picture of the French Rafale fighter.

I was just trying to illustrate a fighter that was not the F-35 (because the Liberals have declared that purchasing it, even if it is the best thing for the RCAF and for Canada (in terms of industrial benefits) is off the table) but many people are actively touting the Rafale as the better choice for Canada.

Now, in an article in the National Post, John Ivison picks up that theme and runs with it … all the way to wondering if the Liberals might decide on a “two for:”

  1. A deal for a new fighter jet for the RCAF; and
  2. A deal for infusing new money into an ailing Bombardier in Quebec.

I am, as you might imagine, unalterably opposed …

  • I’m not opposed because I think the Rafale is a bad choice; I’m not a fighter pilot, I’m not an aeronautical engineer, I’m not one of the officials with my eyes focused on the real budget numbers and I’m not someone who knows what Bombardier needs to survive (assuming it really does need to survive); I don’t know what the better choice might be.
  • But I have been around long enough to know that governments are bad at “picking winners” and that, when there are real choices for a product,* an open, fair competition is the best way to select the best product.

I’m not even opposed to subsidizing Bombardier, I just don’t know how important that company is to Canada.  We can, I believe, legally under international trade law, fiddle (direct) a contract for national security reasons. The American, British, French and Germans, amongst others, do it all the time. If, for national security (interpreted broadly) reasons, we really need Bombardier to survive and prosper, then directing a contract to it is one (legal and proper) say to help it survive.

My experience says that if the government decides to get involved and try to “pick a winner,” especially if it tries to engineer a “win-win” situation for itself,  it will come a cropper.

(I understand that the Harper government did something like that with the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy: faced with un palatable (unaffordable) demands from the Navy and the Coast Guard it appointed a committee of deputy ministers to develop a strategy. The outcome and choices were imperfect (still way too little money) but it was, at least, grounded in a reasoned analysis of what Canada needed and on what our (domestic shipbuilding) capabilities were. Prime Minister Harper then used a similar technique ~ an independent panel that included current Liberal policy advisor Prof Roland Paris of the University of Ottawa, a well known critic of the F-35 programme ~ to, effectively, stall and derail the F-35 project. The aim there, unlike the shipbuilding committee, was only to get the government of the day “off the hook.” If the committee had the skills and knowledge to have  recommended a better choice that might have been a bonus but it, the fighter jet review team, did its work well enough and took the issue off the front pages.)

If Dassault Aviation, a big company with a pretty good product line, thinks that it can do a useful deal with Bombardier that will benefit itself and its bid to producer fighter jets for Canada then that should, indeed, earn them some, maybe even a lot of “points” when officials evaluate the competing bids. The Government of Canada, however, should not try to be a matchmaker to help broker that deal.

Morneau_Bill _Lib_TorCentre_GalleryBrisonScott_LibDespite my very real and sincere respect, even admiration for the abilities of e.g. Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Treasury Board President Scott Brison, I, quite frankly, do not think that there is enough intellectual capacity in the cabinet room to decide that one single project can be a “win-win” for both the Canadian Armed Forces and Bombardier. In this case, given that the government has already rigged the bid once, to exclude the F-35, it should let officials solicit bids and run a fair and open competition to select the best (remaining) choice for Canada. If it’s a French jet built by Bombardier in Quebec then that’s fine … it is really is the better choice.

When governments try to pick winners the results are often disasters.

Aéroport international Montréal–Mirabel

Addendum: If I really want to be fair, I need to mention Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s award of the CF-16 maintenance contract to a Quebec firm over a superior bid from Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg; that was another “winner” that was a political disaster. The CF-18s were well maintained, just at too high a cost.

____

* There were never any realistic alternatives to e.g. the C-17 Globemaster, C-130J Hercules, CH-147 Chinook or Leopard 2 main battle tank so directed, sole source procurements made both practical and political sense.

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