Craig's Take: Don't get caught up in contract fairness
Published Friday, October 21, 2011 12:45PM EDT
The chattering classes in Ottawa seem to have arrived at a consensus that the manner in which the $33-billion shipbuilding contracts were handed out was fair.
And that the double blind system devised to keep politicians' hands off worked well.
Stephen Harper did not need any lessons about the risks of political interference in doling out big defence contracts where a lot of jobs are on the line.
It might even be said that Harper and the Reform Party, with which he came to Ottawa in 1993, are a direct outcome of the disastrous decision made by then-Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney to pull a rich contract on CF-18 maintenance out from under the province of Manitoba in 1986.
That move, as much as anything, convinced Westerners that the federal conservative government was only too willing to put the interests of the West behind those of the Ontario-Quebec axis where Mulroney felt political power should reside.
After that, support for Preston Manning and the reform party began to surge in the West and that of the Progressive Conservatives began its long doleful slide.
However, there is now a debate among bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa about having the bureaucracy on its own making final decisions about big federal procurement deals in the future.
Many believed they should not.
That is because future governments or even the present one could use it as a way to abdicate their responsibility for important decisions that affect regions of the country.
If federal departments and agencies without any involvement from cabinet ministers who had their departments can make such decisions affecting the economy, then who bears the responsibility when things go wrong?
Some people with a long history in the public service believe giving that kind of power to civil servants amounts to an abdication of ministerial responsibility.
It would be too easy for elected politicians to hide behind the bureaucracy or even use it as a whipping boy to blame if the contracting process falls apart in some way or ends up in a scandal.
How could critics in the government, and outside, get to the bottom of problems if the political leadership insists it was uninvolved and -- as is often the case -- civil servants would not be permitted to appear before Commons committees to answer for their actions?
We expect political leaders to make tough decisions for which they may often have to pay a price with the electorate.
We even expect them to interfere politically, when they do so, in ways that protect national interests as they see it.
So let's not get too carried away with the success of the manner in which the richest defence contracts in Canadian history were doled out. And let's not drift too easily into a system where the judgment of elected officials is set aside by unelected officials behind the scenes who have no responsibility except to their political bosses.