A researcher seeking details of the benefits and jobs supposedly to be created by the project was told by government it will take more than three years to get answers
The Liberal government has brought in yet another media ban, this time affecting companies seeking work on a warship project that involves the largest single outlay of tax dollars in Canadian history.
In a new directive, firms interested in maintenance work on the $60 billion Canadian Surface Combatant program have been told they can’t talk to journalists and instead must refer all inquiries to Public Services and Procurement Canada.
At the same time, a public interest researcher who is seeking details about the industrial benefits and jobs supposedly to be created by the surface combatant project has been informed by government it will take at least three and a half years to get any such documents under the Access to Information law.
The surface combatant program will see 15 warships constructed at Irving Shipbuilding on the east coast.
The media ban imposed by Procurement Canada on firms interested in maintenance work on that fleet is the fifth such order in the last year involving the purchase of military equipment or ships, according to documents compiled by Postmedia.
Industry representatives have sent the news organization the documents, warning about the growing secrecy at Procurement Canada. The records include a ban on firms talking to journalists about the Canadian Surface Combatants, the purchase of next generation fighter jets, a light icebreaker, a Defence department satellite, as well as a military pilot training contract. Industry executives point out the secrecy is not based on security concerns but on worries the news media will be able to use the information to keep close tabs on the problem-plagued military procurement system.
Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough and Procurement Canada officials often claim the government’s procurement process is “open and transparent.” Neither the minister nor the department have provided comment on the media gag orders.
In March, Procurement Canada threatened to punish any firms who violated the gag order on the proposed purchase of a light icebreaker. That prompted one unnamed company to submit a question to the department on whether a ban on talking to journalists was even legal.
Others have pointed to additional government roadblocks to gathering information about the surface combatant program. Ken Rubin, an advocate for open government, used the Access to Information law to request background papers, briefings and reports from Innovation, Science and Economic Development, which would indicate numbers of jobs to be created by the mega-project. He specifically focused on material exchanged at the senior levels of government between 2015 and 2019. In response, the department told Rubin he would receive the material in three years and four months.
“We’re talking about the largest ever contract in our history and there is no evidence that I’ve seen outlining the jobs in Canada that will be, or will supposed to be, created,” Rubin said. “You would think that the Canadian government would be boastful about that and want these documents released.”
In its response letter the department noted it would have to search a large number of records and consult with various organizations. That would prevent the department from responding to the request within the 30-day time limit set out by the law, the department noted.
Procurement Canada, the department behind the gag orders, appears to be highly sensitive about the news media asking questions about military procurements. In March, Postmedia sent the department questions about potential issues with welds on the navy’s new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships.
But Procurement Canada immediately warned Irving Shipbuilding, which is constructing the vessels, that the news organization was asking questions. Department officials also provided Irving with personal information about the journalist inquiring about the welds.
Procurement Canada never did answer the questions but a short time later Irving Shipbuilding threatened a lawsuit against Postmedia if an article was published claiming there were substantial problems with welds on the ships.
The Department of National Defence later confirmed to the news chain there were issues with welds but they were minor.
In 2016 Procurement Canada also tipped off an Irving representative that Postmedia was asking questions about the Canadian Surface Combatant program.