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Canada Needs a More Transparent Weapons Costing Process

31 May 2018. Dr. Dan Middlemiss. Why do successive federal governments treat Canadians as pliant ignoramuses on matters of defence? Take for example, the budget estimates for the Canadian Surface Combatants. Ottawa will soon, we are told, be awarding a contract for up to 15 new warships, yet the entire cost estimates process has been a charade. At the outset of this project in 2008, a budget was set at $26.2 billion. This guesstimate was established years before the navy had fleshed out a meaningful statement of operational requirements, and a decade or more before a design will be selected and a contract let. In June 2017, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that these ships will now likely cost at least $61.82 billion, provided no delays arise.

Ironically, this whole cost estimate masquerade is put in place so that the public has confidence that Ottawa is ensuring that costs – and risks – are being carefully monitored and held in check. Then, years later, we are told that we should not read too much into these early figures because they are only ‘notional’ to offer a rough guide as to the ultimate costs. The navy, industry and government are then roundly lambasted for hiding the true costs of programs and for letting costs get out of control. The end result is usually an erosion of public confidence in the procurement process, and demands for greater accountability. Greater accountability, in turn, leads to ever more layers of oversight and monitoring mechanisms to force greater transparency and openness in an effort to gain greater cost certainty where none can reasonably be expected in the early stages of major procurement programs. This usually leads to delays and ever rising costs. And so, the cycle repeats.

Surely this propensity to estimate chicanery is an indictment of the many billions of dollars our governments annually pour into our education. Ottawa cowers in fear of ‘sticker-shock’ backlashes that might attend the revelation of how much complex military equipment actually costs today. So politicians and bureaucrats obfuscate, temporize and ultimately prevaricate to us to spare us the burden of the truth. In short, our governments treat us as they would mushrooms (the non-psychedelic relations of which they are hastening to legalize) which are kept in the dark and are nurtured in manure.

Surely we, as taxpayers, are entitled to better than this. We need to know a great deal more than we do now about the costly procurements facing our political masters. True, we cannot expect certainty where none can reasonably exist, but we should be entitled to much more candor about the financial bases upon which important military acquisition decisions are made. Our democratic governments are, to an extent, responsible for educating their citizens, even with respect to the arcane processes of military procurement. Our leaders should seize these opportunities as ‘teachable moments’ and tell us the broad strokes of why and how they have arrived at the decisions they make on our behalf, and additionally allow us to assess the basic cost data they have employed. The citizens of other countries receive a more open and transparent treatment regarding major defence procurement projects, and they still find it possible to support their governments and the choices they make. Canadians deserve no less.

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