The recent announcement about the awarding of the most expensive ever military procurement contracts in Canada caused much excitement in political circles, particularly in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, homes of the winning shipyards.
These contracts were lauded for having been awarded without political interference and for their promise of long-term employment. The British Columbia contract is said to involve over four thousand jobs. Not minimum pay casual jobs, but solid long-term jobs amounting to careers in a range of skills, trades, and professions.
These jobs will pay good wages and benefits for decades to come. In the words of our premier, this was a “great week for B.C. jobs.” Yes indeed.
Noticeable for its absence in all the hurrah and hoopla was the frequently used, tiresome political term “taxpayers’ dollars.” That term was neither seen nor heard in connection with the official announcements. And yet: every single dollar spent on these two contracts will have been collected from taxpayers by the federal government.
The final cost of these two contracts will add up to nearly $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in this country. And that is just the beginning. Once these ships are built the cost of operating, staffing, and maintaining them in the decades until their eventual retirement to the scrap yard will have been a public expense paid for with taxes collected by governments.
The ships to be built on the east coast will be combat vessels. Of course I have no idea of what role Canada’s military will play by mid-century, but if recent history can be relied upon as a guide, these ships will likely be deployed to missions such as those in Libya, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Combat vessels are rarely engaged in productive economic activities. To the contrary, their missions tend to support military land and air operations which are of course paid for with our taxes. On the other hand, the role of the non-combat vessels to be built in British Columbia is to provide a direct benefit to productive economic activities. Ice breakers are the snowplows of northern shipping lanes; search and rescue vessels are the ocean’s ambulances, and research vessels are floating colleges and universities.
With these two ship-building contracts government has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to define long-term targets and commit to their pursuit.
We have been shown that it is possible to depoliticize the evaluation of publicly funded projects, to place more emphasis on the targets to be achieved and on the evaluation of the means for their achievement. We have been shown that it is possible to talk about common good objectives with the emphasis on their commonality and desirability. And finally, we have seen governments celebrate the securing of long-term employment with good wages and benefits linked to the pursuit of publicly funded common good objectives, without so much as hinting that doing so may be detrimental to our market-based economy.
What we, as citizens, need to do now is to muster the political courage to demand that the provincial government adopt the same approach as the federal government did in the procurement of military vessels, to health care and education. There are many Third World examples to remind us that a sound economy is not built on a foundation of oil, gas, coal, or timber.
A sound economy’s foundation is a healthy and educated citizenry. If, as citizens, we focus our political debates on the common good objectives of a healthy and educated society, taxpayers’ dollars will take care of themselves.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace, BC.