Editor’s Corner article

Defending the Indefensible
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Dec 14, 2016

The year 2016 started out with great promise. First, we had a new and invigorated government; then I found out I had been chosen as the recipient of the Ross Munro Award for defence journalism; and shortly afterwards, I began planning trips to visit my newly transplanted children, one in Vancouver and another in South Korea (our family’s Atlantic roots are switching to a Pacific-centric perspective).

Throughout the year, the government was working away at the Defence Policy Review, talking to concerned and informed Canadians, and I’ve heard that the finished result will be a “pleasant surprise” when it gets released sometime in early 2017.

In October, I had the pleasure of attending a conference in Newfoundland, which is my favourite province to visit – but while there, the “stuff” hit the fan. We learned that “the feds” are being manipulated (surely it wasn’t their idea) into adding a contractual obligation that all communications in the public domain about the Surface Combatant RFP, or the qualifications of its bidders or their myriad subcontractors, must now be pre-approved by Irving Shipbuilding (ISI). This stipulation also extended to those related to the bidders and subcontractors (including spouses and relatives and ex-employees).

Going one step further, the government later advised federal public servants that they are under a lifetime gag order with regards to the CSC RFP. What, exactly, is so dangerous about this particular procurement process that it has to be hidden so thoroughly? No one I've talked to can recall anything that approaches this kind of control. Giving a private company the authority to vet the public communications of another company is, quite frankly, unheard of – and no democracy should tolerate this kind of intervention by the Crown.

When pressed, the government scrambled, but its recovery plan actually made it worse. According to PSPC ADM Lisa Campbell“The intent of the clause is simply to encourage bidders to respect and preserve the integrity of the solicitation process and focus on the content of their proposals. Companies are free to promote their products and services, but the RFP asks that they not do so in a way that would discredit the procurement process or other bidders.” (my emphasis)

Let’s be clear: “free to promote” is a completely false statement – every single piece of communication must still be pre-approved by ISI. Furthermore, I challenge anyone at PSPC to find any advertising in FrontLine Defence where a defence contractor “discredits” its competitor – it just doesn’t happen, not publicly anyhow.

The fact of the matter is, companies all work together, at one time or another, on one project or another. They can be bidding in cooperation with, and competing against, the same company on different contracts, all at the same time – that’s the nature of the global defence business. And they do not need protection by the Crown in any case.

Ms. Campbell’s email goes on to explain that: “Irving Shipbuilding Inc. has since advised all of the prospective bidders that the request for proposal has been amended.” The correct response would have been to completely eliminate the offensive clause. Instead, the government continues this unnecessary and unjustifiable constraint on freedom of expression by amending the clause as follows:

“A bidder shall not, and shall ensure that its subcontractors, employees and representatives do not issue or disseminate any media release, public announcement or public disclosure (whether for publication in the press, on the radio, television, internet or any other medium) with respect to the outcome of the RFP process, including any determination of the Preferred Bidder or Selected Bidder, without the prior written consent of ISI and in any event not prior to the official announcement by Canada.

“The revised amendment restricts the advertisement of participation, or another’s participation, within a governmental procurement process. With regard to advertising for the purpose of promoting and selling goods and services, your publication may continue to do so.”

Once again, the government misses the point. The concern is that the bidders – whose advertising campaigns provide the revenue that allows publishers to continue holding feet to the fire when necessary – would be completely justified in closing down all forms of communication, including advertising, lest they risk losing the bid based on some arbitrary decision by Irving.

If the procurement process is indeed “fair and transparent” such a communication roadblock defies logic.

Building a warship is often described as akin to building a small city. Would the construction company ever be at the helm, choosing and managing the architects and engineers of this highly complex, multi-faceted, software-infused, inter-operable city? The answer is No. Concern over the level of expertise, plus a temptation to make decisions that benefit its own bottom line rather than the client’s interests spring to mind.

How did the company that had been selected, essentially, to cut, weld and paint steel, manage to be anointed as the Prime? ISI seems to wield some magical power. There was no competition; under Harper’s watch, ADM Tom Ring simply announced one day that ISI would be the Prime – and then promptly retired.

Newly in power, PSPC Minister Judy Foote had/has the perfect opportunity to re-examine this status, but seems to have chosen to continue to allow a private company to dictate terms.

The Liberals had (and may still have) a perfect opportunity to re-assess this situation, but so far, no hint of transparency creeping back in.

Full disclosure: FrontLine is directly suffering from this attempt to control public discourse under the guise of some altruistic attempt to “preserve integrity”. If I am an industry player, I read between the lines that advertising has strong negative connotations to this government. But why? All advertising does is provide a showcase for the expertise and viability of that company. It also empowers a publication’s writers to follow the necessary stories – is that the problem?

Cutting publishers off from advertising dollars has the direct effect of controlling, stifling and eliminating the message. In our case, we typically have about 40% of our ad sales finalized by now. At press time, we have precisely four ads signed up for 2017 (and not all in the same edition either).

A mistake was clearly made, but instead of deleting the clause and resetting the natural balance, the government tried to defend the indefensible and continue this unconscionable attack on freedom of speech. This must be condemned in the harshest of possible terms.

Politics aside, I wish all of our readers a wonderful and safe holiday season – I hope we'll be around in the New Year!

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of FrontLine Defence Magazine