We mean it about the F-35s. Except when we don't - Macleans.ca

We mean it about the F-35s. Except when we don’t

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper’s recent reversals


A F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the hangar waiting for an announcement by Defence Minister Peter MacKay in Ottawa on July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The other day Stephen Harper’s government announced it will support an NDP bill that will require officers of Parliament to be fluent in French and English. “Our support for this bill,” said Industry Minister Christian Paradis, “sends a clear message that the promotion of the two official languages, now more than ever, guides the actions of the federal government.”

Paradis’s comment was accurate. But it would have been more precise if, instead of “now more than ever,” he had said, “now more than in October 2011, when we appointed an auditor general who couldn’t speak French and spent months insisting that was no big deal.” In short, the government is now preparing to require, by law, that it not do what it just did.

It has been that kind of month. More or less explicit repudiation of previous acts and stances has been the theme of the year-end for Stephen Harper and his colleagues. One of the questions we are left with is how Harper, notoriously a risk-averse, control-freak incrementalist, managed to leave hundreds of feet of skid marks around a bunch of big files.

Take the new jet fighters. We used to call them F-35s, but now we are less sure. In the office of Rona Ambrose, the public works minister, there is a jar. I am told in all seriousness that if anyone involved in finding a replacement for Canada’s aging F-18 fighter fleet calls that replacement “the F-35,” the minister has them put a dollar in the jar. That’s how adamant Ambrose is that the choice of the F-35 not be locked in.

Of course for two years the government was adamant that the choice of the F-35 was locked in. It’s a little cruel to dig up old quotes on this. But just one. On March 10, 2011, the Prime Minister said: “This is the option that was selected some time ago, because it is the only option available,” he said. “This is the only fighter available that serves the purposes that our air force needs.” Hope you have a dollar for the jar, big guy.

Of course what happened is that times changed. The government’s costing of the F-35 was optimistic and short-term to begin with. Optimism worked out the way it usually does when you’re buying something big and untested. The old talking points grew stale, then ludicrous, and the government stuck with them until the government looked stale and ludicrous, and now it denies saying what it once said. None of this is a tragedy: the jets haven’t been bought, no purchase order has been cancelled, there is still time to choose a more realistic course. But it’s all been a bit awkward.

Take energy. A year ago Harper pronounced the nation’s energy sector open for business, shed a tear for the newly reluctant Yankee customer who had blown whatever right he might once have had to our bounty, and looked eastward, which means westward across the Pacific, to new markets. These markets included China, which was new only in the sense that Harper had spent five years hoping he could find some other market as ravenous as China but less, well, Communist. The Chinese welcomed our new-found willingness to sell them things, and responded with new-found eagerness to buy Canadian things. Things like Alberta. Harper faced another conundrum.

At the beginning of the month he announced his solution: state-owned enterprises would be permitted to buy Canadian firms just this once, and then not again. His stated reason was that if too many state-owned enterprises from one country bought up parts of the oil patch, it would constitute foreign government ownership of an entire industry. So he would permit two proposed takeovers, including the purchase of Nexen by China’s CNOOC, then no more.

Got it. State-owned industry bad, oil sands sensitive. None of this explains why the government rejected the purchase of Potash Corp., which is not in the oil sands, by Australia’s BHP Billiton, which is not state-owned. Nor does it explain why the government first blocked the takeover of Progress Energy by Malaysia’s Petronas, before accepting it later.

(Full disclosure: my spouse, Lisa Samson, is a registered lobbyist for Progress and Petronas.)

The likeliest answer is that Harper was surprised by the antipathy the CNOOC-Nexen bid stirred up. His candidate and visiting party dignitaries heard an earful about it from voters on the doorstep during the recent Calgary Centre by-election campaign. So he improvised an adjustment to earlier plans, and left himself tons of wiggle room for next time. Further energy-sector takeovers by state-owned companies will be accepted “in exceptional circumstances,” which means: “We’ll tell you when it happens.”

None of this is a pretty sight, but neither does it spell trouble for Harper in the short term. As long as he usually moves from more trouble to less, he is moving the way Conservative voters want him to. The PM has had a messy year, but on jets, language politics and energy, he has stopped digging himself deeper. Jan. 23 will mark the seventh anniversary of his election.


We mean it about the F-35s. Except when we don’t

  1. Good article….informative, accurate… and this part cracked me up…

    ‘The Chinese welcomed our new-found willingness to sell them things, and
    responded with new-found eagerness to buy Canadian things. Things like

  2. Harper probably should stick with incrimentalism. It’s when he ventures out into openly transformative or visionary that his inability to see obvious flaws in the grand plan seem most evident.

  3. He’s starting to dither, dodge, improvise, and obfuscate as well as wily ol’ William Lyon MacKenzie King: foreign state ownership, if necessary, but not necessarily foreign state ownership…for now…probably.

  4. For the millionth time:

    BHP vowed to destroy the framework for the Canadian potash industry that the Saskatchewan government has created when it saved the potash industry in the seventies.

    In destroying this framework, BHP would obliterate about 10% of the Saskatchewan’s governments revenue, and a nice chunk of Ottawa’s. It would have forced the Saskatchewan government to rewrite its entire royalty and corporate tax framework that was in place and that many other investors in Saskatchewan resources were relying on and expecting to be stable.

    BHP vowed to export out of Washington state, and not out of British Columbia.

    BHP vowed to exit Canpotex.

    Why do central Canadian media so absolutely clueless about how the BHP deal would have been disastrous for the potash industry, for Saskatchewan, and for Canada?

    It must be because they are employed in government protected (from foreign takeover and competition) and government subsidized industries.

    • I think it is kind of a “why should I sell your potash” point. I find the analysts (including Coyne on this one) that retreat to the either market forces or state controlled outcomes weak on large, highly regulated, strategic industries. That said… how is potash so different from wheat?

  5. As for the oilsands, Canadian champions (Suncor, CNQ, Cenovus, and maybe COS) AND foreign private sector participants have to maintain a controlling share of the oilsands, because we need to maintain continuing improvement in oilsands processes, particularly on the environmental side. Foreign-state owned companies have less incentive to do R&D because often they are more interested in security of supply RATHER than profit.

    The profit motive is an essential driver to lessening the environmental impact on an ongoing and continuous improvement basis of the oilsands.

  6. Nietzsche ~ He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster

    FR Scott ~ WLMK

    We had no shape
    Because he never took sides,
    And no sides
    Because he never allowed them to take shape.

    He skilfully avoided what was wrong
    Without saying what was right,
    And never let his on the one hand
    Know what his on the other hand was doing.

    The height of his ambition
    Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission,
    To have “conscription if necessary
    But not necessarily conscription,”
    To let Parliament decide–

  7. There seems to be a factual difference between Harper and Mulcair on the status of Nexen now that it is owned by China. Can Nexen still act freely as a Canadian company and buy anything it wants? Is it now a Chinese company or is it still a Canadian company under the law? Does anybody know the answer to this?

  8. There is nothing wrong with teaming up with the US air force, Leasing THEIR high tech Expensive$$ jets to
    train OUR Canadian Pilots! Money Saved$$.
    CANADA needs to be a NEUTRAL country, mind its own business and not do What BIG BROTHER is doing,
    the war mongering USA.