Rusting industries find new best friend in PM
TheStar.com – Canada – Rusting industries find new best friend in PM
August 01, 2009. James Travers, OTTAWA
Deep down, Stephen Harper surely has a soft heart. Nothing seems to stir the Prime Minister’s protective instincts quite like a faded industrial beauty.
Shipbuilding is the latest to feel the gentle, generous touch the auto sector first experienced last spring. Over the next 30 years, the few remaining marine yards will be cutting up $40 billion in public cash – if they can get their acts and contracts together.
It’s a heartening, wave-the-flag story. Distressed and in decline for decades, the industry now has a chance to escape the boom-and-bust cycle driven by a glacial defence procurement process prone to political reversals.
But wait, as they say in those breathless TV ads, there’s more. By ordering right now, the federal government may someday get ships badly needed today. Better yet, with another election looming Conservatives will be seen stimulating sensitive political regions from the Maritimes through Quebec and Ontario to British Columbia.
Of course, there’s tiny print the ruling party hopes no one will read. What’s most transparent about the proposed new bidding process, the one discussed behind closed doors here this week, is that it’s open to skulduggery. Linked to that is the worry huge premiums will come attached to the made-in-Canada label.
Perhaps that price is worth paying to salvage an industry almost as old as the country. But outside Harper’s close concentric power circles no one knows for sure. Ottawa is as secretive about saving dockyards as it was about rescuing General Motors and Chrysler. It’s not sharing its analysis or stimulating debate on the extraordinary difficulties, as well as enormously high costs, of preserving industries trapped by shifting economic paradigms.
Keeping things vague is in the Prime Minister’s interest. Why hurt the heads of already skeptical voters by worrying them about the wisdom of investing billions in an auto industry increasingly trapped on the wrong side of a fast thickening U.S. border? Why bother to come clean about the size of subsidies required to sustain a shipbuilding industry swamped by cheaper offshore competitors and effectively, if unfairly, shut out of the American market?
Even if the political answers are self-evident, the economic questions scream for more scrutiny. Loonies spent on fading firms are dollars lost to rising or constant stars. In selecting one sector to sustain, a federal government squeezed between declining revenues and rising deficits is also choosing others to fall.
Those choices are written daily in newspaper headlines. Shipbuilding and auto manufacturing are too economically and, yes, politically significant to let fail. Nortel Networks and Canada’s world-leading role in the development and production of medical isotopes are not. It’s now part of the record that this government’s keen rush to the side of rusting industries is counter-weighted by its lethargic indifference to the plight of others in technology’s vanguard. Ottawa turned away time after time when Nortel came looking for a lifeline. Conservatives, like their Liberal and Tory predecessors, spent enough at Chalk River to keep the aging National Research Universal reactor ticking but not enough to have a replacement ready when it stops.
This is bad business even if it’s good politics. It suggests that a government charged with safeguarding the country’s future can’t free itself from the past.
More to the political point, it warns how easily a prime minister’s calculating partisan touch can be mistaken for a warm heart.
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