Julian Fantino’s busy career includes highlights such as Chief of Police (in London, York and Toronto), Commissioner of Emergency Management (2005-2006), and then Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner (2006-2010), before he turned his focus to federal politics, winning a by-election in November 2010. In the cabinet shuffle following the May 2011 election, Prime Minister Harper appointed Fantino to the position of Associate Minister of National Defence (AMND). In late August, FrontLine spoke to Associate Minister Fantino about his priorities in filling this position (previously vacant since February 2006).
The primary area for which Fantino is now responsible is procurement – probably the biggest challenge in the defence sector. Few in the defence community are satisfied with the system, and a large percentage consider it to be severely “broken.” The new AMND isn’t one of them, as you will read.
Associate Minister Fantino describes defence procurement as a situation that “has many dynamics to it, working not only within [the defence department] here, but also working with Public Works and with Industry Canada, and of course working broadly with Finance Canada and Treasury Board.”
His priorities now, he says, are to “identify assets that are required, validating those requirements, and making sure we have the funding allocations in place” to “ensure the men and women in the military are given the tools they need to do the jobs we ask them to do,” to “create effectiveness and efficiencies in how they are deployed,” and to “make sure we do all we can to safeguard them as they go about their very dangerous tasks.”
He also acknowledges the requirement to cooperate with the folks in Public Works and Industry Canada to complete any acquisition process.
The current reality is that Parliamentarians, the private sector, DND, PWGSC, Industry Canada and other departments, all want a say in the defence procurement process. Fantino may not yet share the assessment that there are too many chefs in the defence procurement kitchen (let’s see how long that lasts).
When asked if he would take on the challenges associated with a review of the procurement processes, or possibly to facilitate better cooperation between the various federal organizations at the defence procurement table, or look at streamlining the laborious system itself, Associate Minister Fantino replied that there has been a lot of work done already. “Since 2006, our government has reduced the average time required for military procurement from 7 years to 48 months, and we are working still at finding more efficient, more effective ways of expediting procurement for the military, so it’s a work in progress and we’ll continue doing that.” Some may argue that four years is not an acceptable average when we put people in harm’s way without the best protection or kit available to do the job.
There have only been a handful of Associate Defence Ministers since the position was created during WWII; and it has been vacant for over five years now. Whether filling this position is intended to simply oil the wheels and lighten the load on Minister MacKay, or to actually make a difference in defence procurement, is a question Fantino answers with ease. “We’re keeping the procurement projects going, they are very complex and very involved; and at the very same time, [we are looking for] efficiencies as we go forward. If we can do things faster, quicker, more economically – we are always looking for advantages.”
Filling this position, he believes, is very important in that “Minister MacKay has huge responsibilities as it is, and being able to assist him is [important].” Not only that, he says, “there are very large amounts of taxpayer dollars that we’re talking about here, so any added attention we can give to how we spend [it] I think it’s a very critical issue. The government of the day has placed added importance on this particular position ... and do the best we can to expedite those processes, which is what I’m doing.”
Asked if there any general aspects of defence procurement that could be targeted for improvement, the new Associate Minister replies that in every job, “we should always try to improve the way we operate and spend taxpayer money. These are enormous projects with hugely technical aspects to them, and there’s only so much hurrying up you can do. You still want to be very careful and diligent about all of these issues, making sure we’re doing all the right things for all the right reasons. And making sure that we’re open and transparent to the industry as well, because one of the partners in this, of course, are the respective industries, whether it’s aerospace or ships or land assets. We are trying to expedite all of that, to go from start to finish in a way that we don’t miss any of the benchmarks that need to be addressed.”
Responding to a question about the Defence Ombudsman’s statement, earlier this year, that defence industry executives feel that if they voice complaints about the procurement process, their companies will experience negative repercussions, the new Associate Minister replies: “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’m not aware of any companies that have raised any issues about repercussions. We’re trying very hard to be open, transparent and fair to the industry broadly. Everything we do is benchmarked on [those qualities]. But the reality is that there are some folks who would be unhappy if they don’t get certain contracts. But my concern is not whether they are happy or not, my concern is are we doing the right thing, are we doing ethically, are we open and transparent, are we being fair? Being unhappy, for some, would be just a consequence of not being able to compete in a very competitive world. So, I don’t know where that [complaint] came from.”
Moving along, FrontLine notes the constant turnover in federal procurement staff, some of whom are civilians with no military knowledge who have been brought in from other departments for only a few years (any longer would involve contractual consequences with the employee). “There are always people moving about,” responds Fantino, “people explore opportunities, and they are entitled to avail themselves of those opportunities, but the people with whom I’ve had an ongoing relationship since I arrived here [three months ago] seem to be consistent, I don’t see any turnover.”
Despite that, it is common knowledge that procurement staff move from project to project quite frequently. Considering that defence programs include so many intricacies and drag on so long, I ask if DND is concerned about how mid-project staff turnovers (sometimes many times over) affect the contract components, the procurement timelines, or the final costs. “That’s news to me,” responds Mr. Fantino. “What does in fact happen,” he very patiently explains, “is that materiel experts are brought in for certain projects, and as those things move along, obviously things change and someone else comes in – this is not a static kind of a world. As things move through the pipeline, things change and the requirement for input and specialized knowledge changes, so I don’t know where you got your information from. The people I’m working with have been here for a long time. The continuity is here. But granted, as projects come and go, so do people.”
There are many high profile procurements underway, some of which have not been getting the best press. “Let me address the controversies issue,” says Fantino. “We are not in the business of addressing controversies because very often some of those controversies are based on particular issues that really don’t have anything to do with us here, in that some people may feel they are not being treated fairly, but I can assure you that people are bending over backwards here to ensure that the procurement process is ethical, above board, transparent and all that. A case on point is the selection of shipyards for instance, the effort that’s gone into that. It’s an arms-length process from the political folks here. There is a group of people in place to assess and evaluate and make the final decision. We will accept the recommendations [from this Secretariat] of non-political people. There have been meetings with industry and interested parties. I don’t know how anyone can suggest that the process is unfair. We are guided by every conscientious regard for ethical conduct on our part. Having said that, there will always be unhappy people. The perfect system is the one that gives you the contract, and if you don’t get it, obviously people aren’t happy. But we’re not here to please people, we’re here to do the right things for the right reasons for the people of Canada and the men and women in the military,” says Fantino.
“I don’t even know who’s in the bidding for the shipyards,” claims the AMND with complete sincerity. “It will be something the Secretariat will be dealing with and we will only be involved once we get their recommendation,” he continues. Everyone in the navy (regular, reserve or retired) knows exactly who is bidding. Is this comment intended to prove the process is truly arms-length at the highest levels?
We all agree on one thing, there has been little to no controversy surrounding the NSPS (National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy). That’s due in large part to the collaborative effort that went into reaching out to the naval industry very early in the process. To date, this has been a most peaceful procurement despite the immensity of the contracts. We shall find out shortly if calm will reign once the first much-anticipated decision is made public during the week of October 17th.
Other major procurements continue to limp along, such as the incredibly controversial F-35 fighter aircraft. The next “significant issue” is the Fixed Wing SAR project, which was launched in 2004 and which Fantino describes as “a very critical issue for us right now.” When pressed further, he responds with “let me just say that it’s moving forward with a renewed emphasis and approach. I can’t speak to the past, all I can tell you is that I have the file in hand and we’re moving it forward.”
These three projects are the most significant issues, says Fantino, with land vehicles and armaments not far behind.
In fact, in August, the government announced a new plan to purchase 1,500 trucks with a program called the Logistics Vehicle Modernization (LVM). Not to bring controversy into the picture but it might be more encouraging to vehicle manufacturers if the Medium Support Vehicle System (MSVS) project, announced in the summer of 2006, had been awarded. And we mustn’t forget the armoured requirement projects, the TAPV (Tactical Armoured Patrol Vehicles) and CCV (Close Combat Vehicles). “Everything’s moving forward but there’s only so much you can do, there’s only so much the industry can accommodate. We don’t have the factories ourselves, we have to cooperate with industry and sometimes we are not the only ones on the production line, we have to wait our turn, but we are doing the best we can to expedite some of these assets coming to us as quickly as possible.”
Fantino has been brought on board as sous-chef in an incredibly complicated kitchen. Any good chef must know all of the ingredients and understand how the various components interact, to cancel or boost nutrient absorption, and how flavour combinations can destroy or enhance the final taste sensation.
For now, Associate Minister Fantino seems to be taking it slowly, which is definitely a good idea with the amount of work ahead of him to learn not only the basics but also the nuances of defence procurement. As so many good intentions have gone astray in the past, we are left to ask... will he retire or change portfolios before any positive change can be made? Does he care enough to stick around throughout the learning curve? Based on the solid continuity that is apparently prevalent in the defence procurement community, one might assume he intends to stick around.
However, after featuring countless articles from industry insiders offering intelligent and constructive criticisms of the defence procurement process in Canada, and after listening for years to the frustrations from inside government, I am beginning to get jaded enough to think there truly may be no true political will to effect the necessary change. One thing I know for sure, is we’ll need an experienced chef.
Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief of FrontLine Defence magazine.
© FrontLine Defence 2011