Halifax Sunday Herald column, November 11, 2007
Samuel Johnson was wrong. The last refuge of scoundrels is not patriotism, but “budget constraints.” When governments want to do something, they can always find the money. When they don't want to act – or when they want to do something indefensible -- they cite budget constraints.
Last month, for example, Fisheries New Minister Loyola Hearn announced that “Canada's New Government” -- which is getting a bit long in the tooth now – was making “an investment of $12.2 million for the restoration of three buildings located on the Canadian Coast Guard base in Quebec City.” The objective is to “enhance the area's architectural landscape” in time for the 400th anniversary of the city's founding.
Fine. Quebec deserves it. But Canada's New Government can't then claim that it doesn't have $6 million to repair and renew the decrepit Coast Guard base in Dartmouth, and that it therefore must close the base and move the Coast Guard's two largest icebreakers to Newfoundland.
Canada's New Government is awash in cash. Just like Canada's Old Government, it's running a massive surplus – maybe a record $20 billion. But if funds were tight? Well, the Coast Guard isn't in the business of enhancing the streetscapes of the nation. It's in the business of search-and-rescue, coastal patrol, ice-breaking and similar difficult and essential marine pursuits. Its most important assets are not buildings but ships and the facilities that support the ships and the men and women who sail them.
If you had to choose, that's where you'd spend your money. But we don't have to choose. So what's going on with those icebreakers?
Go back to 1995, when Canada's Old Government – claiming budget constraints – merged its two non-military fleets by moving the Coast Guard from the Department of Transport to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which had a fleet of scientific research and fisheries enforcement vessels. Where the two fleets had contiguous bases, the facilities would be merged. So the Dartmouth Coast Guard operations would move to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.
Great on paper – but the BIO had no wharves adequate for the big icebreakers Terry Fox and Louis St. Laurent. Very well: new wharves would be built. Whoops: that would cost $6.4 million – almost exactly the same cost as upgrading the original Coast Guard base. All right, perhaps the Terry Fox could dock at a leased Navy facility, with the Louis St. Laurent being moved to Sydney or Mulgrave. Maybe.
Meanwhile, the merger of the two fleets didn't go particularly well. For mariners, particularly fishermen, the Coast Guard represents safety and security. They're the guys who pluck you off your burning or sinking vessel. DFO, however, represents law enforcement. They're the guys who charge you if you break their regulations. Two different functions, two different cultures. Morale in the Coast Guard plummetted.
And then, last April, Loyola Hearn dropped a bomb. The two big icebreakers would move from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland “to avoid significant additional infrastructure costs which would be required if they stayed in the Maritimes Region.” In Newfoundland, “the infrastructure is already in place.”
Bosh. Louis St. Laurent goes to Argentia, a port where the Coast Guard has no presence and which affords almost no facilities for a ship this size. The only appropriate berth is a deteriorated naval dock which is barred to heavy trucks and cranes. St. John's is 85 miles away -- $125 by taxi -- so bringing in crews and supplies will be costly and time-consuming.
And St. John's? The Fox visited there this fall, riding relatively high after using up much of her fuel on an Arctic voyage. The harbour pilot refused to take her alongside the shallow Coast Guard wharves unless she was further lightened. Unless the wharf is dredged, the ship will have to lie elsewhere. She may have to lie elsewhere anyway, since the Coast Guard base isn't big enough for the existing fleet plus the Fox.
And does anyone care about the disruption of the lives of 150 families associated with the two ships, or the loss to Halifax of about $15 million a year?
This reeking proposal produced a storm of objections from Coast Guard retirees, opposition MPs and MLAs, citizens, and even serving Coast Guard officers like Stewart Klebert, skipper of the Louis St. Laurent – though little from the muted mayor of Halifax and the muzzled premier of Nova Scotia. All hands agreed that the cheapest and simplest option would be to repair the Dartmouth base and keep the ships where they are.
So what's motivating Loyola Hearn? Survival. With Danny Williams on the war-path, no federal Conservative seat in Newfoundland is safe. The Tories hold three Newfoundland ridings, and this proposal would put icebreakers in two of them.
Canada's New Government? Phooey. The faces look different, but the smell is the same.
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