By: David Pugliese, The National Post
Construction of the navy’s supply ships won’t start until 2019, the federal government says, yet another delay in outfitting the maritime service with a critical capability.
Work on the first Joint Support Ship at Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver was supposed to begin this year, but federal officials recently refused to outline to parliamentarians the building and delivery schedule for those vessels.
However, in the newly released update on the progress on the government’s shipbuilding strategy, the Liberals report that construction will begin in 2019.
The update, which covers progress made throughout 2016, is a mix of old and new information and includes an introduction by Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough. Design work is continuing on a number of vessels, including the supply ships, writes Qualtrough, who took over the portfolio from Judy Foote in August.
Yet another delay for the Joint Support Ships cements the need for the leased supply ship, MV Asterix, which was acquired as a stop-gap measure so Canadian warships could be refuelled and resupplied at sea, navy officers privately say.
The Asterix, a commercial ship converted by Davie shipyards to perform a military supply role, is at the heart of the federal government’s case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman.
Norman has been accused by the RCMP of warning Davie that Liberal cabinet ministers wanted to derail the Asterix project.
Man overboard: Inside the fall of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman
Supply ship project delay means DND postpones $20-million payment
Two years after Liberals were accused of trying to scuttle it, new supply ship arrives in Halifax for navy training
That development leaked out to the news media and the resulting embarrassment forced the Liberal government to back down on its plans and Asterix proceeded. Royal Canadian Navy sailors are currently training on the ship on the East Coast and Asterix will be available in the coming months to resupply the navy’s vessels.
Norman, who was suspended from his job by Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance more than a year ago, has denied any wrongdoing. No charges have been laid against Norman and the claims made against him by the RCMP are so far unproven.
Norman had at times warned parliamentarians about the need to deal with the gap in supply ships because of his concerns that construction of the Joint Support Ships had fallen behind schedule.
The navy had hoped to get the first ship in 2021 and the second in 2022. The update issued by Qualtrough and posted to her department’s website on Dec. 17 still uses those dates. Industry officials, however, have said that those delivery dates are highly unlikely.
Last week Postmedia reported the Department of National Defence was holding off on spending $20 million on the Joint Support Ships because of ongoing delays but the department did not issue details about the timeframe. In an email, the DND noted the money would not be spent this year “due to delays in project approvals and contract awards, delay in construction of ships.”
Taxpayers will eventually spend $2.3 billion on the ships once the project is fully underway.
In late November, the federal government told MPs it can’t provide them with a schedule for the delivery of the new ships or the coast guard’s Polar-class icebreaker because it deems such information secret.
The refusal to provide such basic details to MPs on shipbuilding programs that are costing billions of dollars was a warning construction of the vessels had fallen further behind schedule, said industry representatives and Conservative MP Todd Doherty.
Qualtrough’s press secretary, Ashley Michnowski, noted the Liberal government has made a commitment to be transparent in communicating the progress on the national shipbuilding program. “Pulling together data and information for this first annual report was complex as it involved input from multiple departments and companies,” she noted. “We are now in a better position to provide more timely reporting moving forward.”
The update contains details of maintenance contracts for the Victoria-class submarines.
It also highlighted the work to convert Asterix, noting that 700 people are employed at Davie by the program.
But neither the submarines nor Asterix is part of the national shipbuilding program. In addition, Davie has laid off many of those workers since the Liberal government has refused to proceed with the conversion of a second supply ship and has rejected other ship proposals from the company.