In The Media

Tories slam 'secret' Liberal cabinet committee

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Perry and Elinor Sloan)

February 10, 2016

An ad hoc cabinet committee that the Trudeau government won't confirm exists is mandated to make defence procurement more transparent, raising questions about the Liberals' commitment to openness.

The government has been operating an ad hoc cabinet committee on defence procurement, Embassy reported Jan. 28, even though no public announcements about the committee have been made.

The mandate of the committee, based on recent departmental briefing notes, is to co-ordinate defence procurement, review policy proposals and “ensure the process is managed transparently, fairly and effectively,” according to a well-positioned source. 

The committee was set to focus on five key projects, the source says: the Canadian Surface Combatant (replacing Canada's fleet of frigates); the Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel; the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue aircraft; the Future Fighter Capability Project (replacing Canada's fleet of CF-18 fighter jets) and the Logistics Vehicle Modernization (for a range of army vehicles).

But the Prime Minister's Office, and the offices of several ministers, have not answered phone calls and emails about the committee's membership or mandate. Although two ministers' offices confirmed the committee exists, they wouldn’t offer further details. 

The radio silence is especially striking as it contrasts with another ad hoc cabinet committee announced with much fanfare early in the government’s mandate, on Syrian refugees. The government also publicly posted the names and membership of other cabinet committees on Nov. 4.

"The new secret Liberal cabinet committee on military procurement is a step in the wrong direction," Conservative defence critic James Bezan told Embassy in a written statement. "Canada's procurement process should be focused on allowing for fair and open competitions." 

In February 2014, the Conservative government announced a set of changes to modernize and streamline what many called a broken procurement process, but after two years, critics say many of the Defence Procurement Strategy's promises remained unfulfilled.

The NDP's defence critic, Randall Garrison, was unavailable for an interview. The party did not get back to Embassy with a statement before press time.

Five 'key projects' 

Of projects being looked at by the committee, the offshore science vessels are already in production, but the others are still in planning phases.

The committee “will be included in decision making in the pre-definition phase,” with “complex strategies” and “when there’s a need to change policy approaches,” according to briefing notes. The committee is also tasked with oversight and monitoring the procurement process.

Shipbuilding projects and fighter jets both made it into the Liberal election platform, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s party promising more money for the navy and an opt-out of the F-35 fighter jet procurement.

One platform document released in September specifically mentioned cabinet involvement in procurement decisions—though the line didn’t make it into the Liberals’ full platform.

The promise is still in plain sight on one of the Liberal Party’s web pages, in a section about the Canadian military: “ensuring that all equipment acquisitions operate with vastly improved timelines and vigorous Parliamentary oversight, while providing the necessary, decisive, involved, and accountable Cabinet leadership to drive major programs to a timely and successful conclusion.”

‘There’s nothing to hide’

Why the government would avoid even confirming that the ad hoc committee exists is a mystery to most in Canada’s defence community.

Adam Chapnick, deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College, suggested that there’s nothing wrong or undemocratic about operating such a committee. Others have convened in the past—for example, an ad hoc national security committee under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien after 9/11, and another under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

“It’s surprising, though, that a government that is so committed to openness wouldn’t publish the composition of the committee on the website,” Mr. Chapnick said. Ministerial mandate letters and the memberships of standing cabinet committees are online and accessible to the public.

“I don’t see any benefit for this government operating in secret. I think in this day and age, most things get out. Canadians find out,” he added. Besides, Canadians wouldn’t be upset to know that this committee is operating: “There’s nothing to hide here.”

David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said, “It is kind of incongruous with their other commitments to transparency.” And a senior government official added they found it “interesting and surprising” that there would be no announcement.

Craig Stone, an associate professor at the Canadian Forces College, said this is "at odds with their message about being open and transparent" but suggested the committee may be "trying to get themselves sorted out before letting any information out to the media."

Military generals attended a cabinet committee meeting Jan. 28, according to one source, but Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance's office would neither confirm or deny that the meeting had taken place.

‘Good news’ that committee is meeting

The confidentiality of cabinet deliberations themselves could lend itself to quicker decision-making, Elinor Sloan, a professor at Carleton University, told Embassy.

The government’s decision to convene the committee is “good news” and pushes the issue of procurement to a higher level than it has been in recent years. “My take on it would be that it’s as urgent an issue as the refugees—something clearly needs to be looked at, and there had to be some kind of a structure in place to push this forward,” said Ms. Sloan.

“It might be the case that once they have something to announce that they’ll open up about it,” she speculated. “I understand why people want ‘open and transparent,’ but sometimes you do need confidentiality to move forward, and once the decisions are made they can be fully public.”

With 30 members of cabinet, committees are needed to get into serious, detailed discussions, Mr. Chapnick said. “When there are issues where you need to drill down, subcommittees are the place to do that. If it was determined that procurement is so important that it risked taking over one of the committees that was already established, it would make sense to establish a smaller committee.”

The committee would likely need to get into the details of specific procurement projects in order to make decisions. Files are complex, Mr. Perry explained. “The way the governance structure is set up is not a quick 12-minute PowerPoint,’re not briefing that in 10 minutes,” he said.

Systemic issues with defence procurement were especially obvious as the two-year anniversary of the Defence Procurement Strategy came and went last week. The bigger picture of defence procurement is something the cabinet committee could be looking at, in addition to specific projects.

“I sure hope the new government thinks it’s unacceptable that 24 months later, there’s no tangible progress made on streamlining the procurement process across government,” Mr. Perry said.

One of the first specific procurement challenges the new government faced was whether or not to uphold a $700 million contract with Quebec’s Davie shipyard to build a supply ship. A contract had been finalized by the Conservative government but remained unsigned when the Liberals took power.

On Nov. 19, Liberal ministers decided to delay a decision for 60 days, causing alarm in the defence industry. But by Nov. 30, they decided to honour the deal.

One senior official suggested to Embassy that this high-profile kerfuffle may have prompted cabinet to start convening this ad-hoc committee, suggesting the Davie contract decision caught the government off guard. Policy considerations need to be brought into play “very quickly” on many of these files, the official said, requiring quick decision-making at a high level.

Chair has ‘no skin in the game’

Chairing the committee is Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Embassy has confirmed. Judy Foote, the minister in charge of procurement, also sits on the committee.

Other ministers who might be expected to sit on the committee include Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister; Navdeep Bains, the minister responsible for industry, now dubbed Innovation, Science and Economic Development; and Scott Brison, the president of the Treasury Board. Their offices did not respond to Embassy’s inquiries.

Mr. Stone speculated that ministers of Global Affairs, Trade, Fisheries, Justice and Finance could also be present.

“These are, for the most part, all new cabinet ministers who need to get comfortable with the issues before beginning to make decisions,” he said in an email to Embassy. “Once the ministers get comfortable with the files, the committee may not be required to meet, or it could meet as required for a specific procurement.”

Most experts agree that though it may seem unusual to have a committee chair who isn’t as familiar with the defence file, it could benefit the discussion. Ms. McKenna has “no bone in the procurement space,” Mr. Stone said, and can thus “ensure agendas are balanced.”

“To me there would be kind of a logic in having a chair that doesn’t have a direct stake in it, because you can actually be a more independent and objective arbiter,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Chapnick agreed. “The best way to do this would be a cabinet minister who doesn’t have skin in the game chairing, so that you have the experts participating as full members,” he said.

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