Forestalling the appearance of conflict at Defence
I'm a big fan of the CPC defence platform. Oh, I'd have liked to see an overarching strategy or philosophy attached to it, but it goes much farther in substantive detail than the other parties' plans. It follows that I'm appreciative of the efforts of Gordon O'Connor, the CPC Defence Critic, in putting that portion of the platform together.
Having said that, and given that Mr. O'Connor is most likely our next Minister of National Defence, this story concerns me:
Mr. O'Connor said a Tory government would examine programs already initiated by the Liberals such as the Hercules replacement.
"Everything will be reviewed," said the former general who wrote the party's defence platform.
"But I want a legitimate competition."
Before the election, Mr. O'Connor alleged in the House of Commons that Defence Minister Bill Graham "fixed the requirements" for the Hercules replacement project to favour the Lockheed C-130J. He noted the budget and the set number of aircraft outlined in the equipment program would stop the giant Boeing C-17 aircraft from being considered.
In addition, Mr. O'Connor said the government's requirement the plane be certified at the time the contract is signed in 2007 would prevent the A400M aircraft, built by a European consortium, from entering the competition. The A400M is not scheduled to be flying until 2008.
But some defence and aerospace officials noted Mr. O'Connor was once a lobbyist for Airbus, the consortium behind the A400M. Others have voiced concerns about the close links between Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier and a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin. (Babbler's italics)
Read back a little further into the public record, and the picture becomes even more worrisome:
The chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, requested meetings with opposition defence critics before question period in the House of Commons, assuring them the process [to procure replacements for the Hercules fleet] will be competitive and the planes are needed.
But only the NDP's Bill Blaikie and Bloc Quebecois critic Claude Bachand showed up.
The Conservative critic, retired general Gordon O'Connor, said he didn't need to attend the meeting. Acknowledging the need for air transport, he said the government will do what it's going to do, with or without him.
"Nothing of any consequence is going to happen in the next two months," O'Connor predicted. "If the Liberals return, they will continue with their process. If we return, we'll look at where it is."
Reasonable people can disagree on which equipment will best meet the needs of the CF going forward. And it would be irresponsible stewardship for a new Minister not to review existing programs to be sure they conform to the new government's plans and standards.
Even so, while I don't want to impugn the motives of Mr. O'Connor, these stories raise some legitimate concerns.
Firstly, how will Mr. O'Connor's history - as both a retired officer, and a lobbyist - with the current leadership at DND affect his ability to work with them as minister? Does he have a problem with the current CDS or others in positions of influence at DND? Refusing to attend a simple meeting on such an important procurement issue suggests he might.
If anyone at DND has personal knowledge of tensions between Mr. O'Connor and either the civilian or military leadership at the Department, or equally if anyone can put these concerns to rest, they're invited to drop me an e-mail in complete confidence (damian dot brooks NO SPAM at gmail dot com).
Secondly, how will Mr. O'Connor overcome the appearance of a conflict of interest when it comes to military procurement issues if he is appointed MND? Because while Airbus is the focus of this discussion, it was hardly his only client when he worked for Hill and Knowlton Canada.
Western Star, one former O'Connor client, was in the initial running for the Iltis replacement. That procurement was hardly without controversy: the G-Wagen won by default when every other competitor withdrew from the bidding process.
General Dynamics Canada, another former O'Connor client, is one of the big kids on the defence contractor block. They were part of the successful Sikorsky bid on the Maritime Helicopter Project to replace the CF's Sea Kings.
BAE Systems, another ex-client of O'Connor's, recently won one of the CF-18 modernization contracts.
I bring these up not to suggest any impropriety - far from it - but to point out to Mr. O'Connor and the CPC that they will have to deal with some significant challenges should he become the Defence Minister in a Conservative government.
First off, the opposition and the press will dig like mad to show favouritism to 'corporate cronies' in any future procurement decision. This shouldn't come as news to anyone. I expect they will not find anything amiss, but the digging will public, and insinuation is almost as damaging to public opinion as proof.
More importantly, given the relatively small pool of defence contractors, and the extensive list of Mr. O'Connor's former clients, it will be almost impossible for him to avoid dealing with these companies in future procurement decisions. Which brings us back to allegations of favouratism, founded or not.
My proposal to Mr. Harper and the CPC follows accordingly: majority or minority, strengthen the role of the Commons Defence Committee. In matters relating to procurement, especially involving companies with which Mr. O'Connor has had business dealings in the past, defer to the recommendations of the Committee as much as possible.
Coming on the heels of the Martin-Earnscliffe PMO, and running on a strong platform of accountability and transparency in government, the Conservatives need to stay as far away from even the appearance of conflict of interest as possible.