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Harper is blind to buy-Canadian benefits

Canada’s beleaguered shipbuilding industry is going to receive a $35-billion facelift over the next 30 years. This is welcome news for an industry that has for years faced uncertainty.


January 9, 2012
by Ken Lewenza

Canada’s beleaguered shipbuilding industry is going to receive a $35-billion facelift over the next 30 years. This is welcome news for an industry that has for years faced uncertainty.

Fierce global competition and a skyrocketing trade deficit (thanks to mounting imports and declining exports) claimed the jobs of one in every two shipbuilders since 1992. But the Harper government is making good on a promise to build new naval, coastguard and icebreaker vessels. This record-breaking purchase under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy will create and secure tens of thousands of jobs at the Halifax and Vancouver shipyards, plus countless spin-offs jobs.

Canadian shipbuilding is among the sectors hardest hit by neo-liberal economic policies, marked by free trade and government’s “hands off” approach to investment and sector development.

Ironically, no foreign competitors were eligible to bid on the contracts and all of the associated economic benefits have been earmarked to stay within Canada’s borders.

This is certainly an odd twist for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet. As they’ve enthusiastically and relentlessly opposed any serious “Made in Canada” public purchasing policy since winning office in 2006.

Prior to the ship purchase, Harper and his trade ministers dismissed countless proposals made by unions, civil society organizations, municipalities and opposition politicians to establish ‘“Buy Canadian” rules that ensure at least some of the economic benefits of public funding.

In fact, the Tories have embarked on an ambitious free trade accord with Europe that would forever strip away the rights of provincial and municipal governments to implement buy-local policies.

This cynicism about buy-domestic policies climaxed in February 2010 when Harper infamously denounced Barack Obama’s “Buy American” stimulus-spending rules. He considered these protectionist measures would pose a “huge risk” to the global economic recovery. Not that his argument was convincing, especially since there is widespread use (and general acceptance) of buy-national policies from the US to Europe and throughout Asia.

No current piece of international trade policy prohibits buy-national policies in some form. Nevertheless, Harper has consistently sided with free market orthodoxy in matters of economic policy. For example in 2009, the Tories awarded a $274-million military truck contract to a foreign supplier, while a Chatham, Ont. truck plant was desperate for new work.

Developing industry sectors
This storyline has been repeated far too many times, but the shipbuilding purchase offers a good example of how Made in Canada plays an important role in developing strategic industrial sectors. And it will help Canada compete with other shipbuilding nations such as Norway and South Korea for international work.

Investment dollars will rebuild hard-hit communities and put skilled trades workers back on the job, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue – more if we consider the spin-off economic activity.

Unfortunately, the success of this purchasing program appears to be more of an anomaly than a strategic change in political direction. Instead of rightfully championing a Made in Canada approach, the Harper government is falling back on old habits. It openly criticized Barack Obama’s inclusion of Buy American provisions in the proposed US jobs bill, calling the policy move “regrettable.”

This public criticism reeks of hypocrisy. It also re-opens the same old, tired ideological debate that pits neo-liberal, “free-market” policies against “protectionism.” On that debate, the ship has certainly sailed, and even Stephen Harper knows it.

Ken Lewenza is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which represents 225,000 workers across the country in 17 different sectors of the economy. E-mail cawcomm@caw.ca.