By David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen
July 14, 2009
A $3-billion project to buy new search-and-rescue aircraft kicked off Tuesday in Ottawa amid complaints from aerospace industry officials that government representatives can't even say how many planes will be purchased or when.
The industry day, signifying the start of the much-delayed program, left aerospace representatives puzzled and at times, frustrated.
Government representatives who called the meeting couldn't answer questions on how many planes would be bought, when they would be purchased, whether they would be equipped with sensors or how they would be maintained.
Several participants described the event, put on by the Defence Department, Public Works and Industry Canada, as a disaster.
About 140 people were jammed into a room in a military hangar, with some having to stand in a nearby hallway. The audio-visual presentation that was to outline details of the program did not work and the microphones for the main speakers and audience members failed.
At the last minute, the Harper government shut down an invitation for the media to listen to the presentations, leading to a bizarre situation where government employees refused even to confirm they were government employees.
Various aerospace-industry representatives complained about the event, but few wanted to publicly criticize the government.
Rob Mauracher, vice-president of business development for Viking Air, acknowledged there were problems, but said he wanted to look at the positive aspects of the day. He said the lack of details on numbers of aircraft and when the aircraft would be bought could be viewed as indicating the government is now more flexible on what it needs.
"It opens a lot of doors for creative thinking," said Mauracher, whose British Columbia firm wants to offer a new variant of the Buffalo aircraft.
The Defence Department had approved a request from Canwest News Service to be allowed to listen to the search-and-rescue presentation by Brig.-Gen. Greg Matte, but at the last minute, that invitation was cancelled on orders from "higher up" in the Harper government, according to various officials.
A supervisor at the Government Teleconferencing Service, which was involved in broadcasting the meeting, said the order to ban the media "just came down" Tuesday morning. "We're doing what we're told," said the supervisor who declined to provide his name. "They've said to disclose nothing further."
He also declined to provide his name, confirm whether he was a public servant or discuss who "they" were.
Secrecy around equipment programs and how the Defence Department spends tax dollars has grown significantly under the Conservatives.
In May, MacKay pleaded with industry representatives to get out the word that military purchases were good for the Canadian economy.
But industry officials note that it is often MacKay's office and other government representatives, such as the Privy Council Office, who prevent firms from discussing projects.
Defence spokesman navy Capt. David Scanlon said despite the approval from the department for Canwest News Service to listen to the presentations, the meeting was intended "largely for representatives of industry." He released a slide show outlining information on the search-and-rescue project that noted that industry would be given 60 days to make suggestions to government.
The search-and-rescue planes would be bought to replace the 40-year-old Buffalo aircraft operating on the West Coast as well as the aging Hercules transport planes also being used for such missions.
In the past, the military has said it would like to buy 17 planes, but that number is now unclear. If a company can do the job with fewer or more aircraft, then the government seems open to that, according to industry officials.
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