There must be an election coming. Stephen Harper is in Canada’s North, and he’s making big promises:
In an Ottawa statement designed to set the tone for his trip, Mr. Harper announced $100-million for a major project to map the Far North's mineral and petroleum wealth.
"Use it or lose it is the first principle of sovereignty in the Arctic," he said just before he flew to Inuvik, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and the northernmost Canadian town that's accessible by road. (Inuvik locals also boast of having the northernmost traffic stoplight, which is anchored in the permafrost outside Mr. Harper's hotel.)
The Prime Minister's trip is scripted as a pre-campaign tour, with each day to include an announcement related to one aspect of his northern policy, first on the economy, with geo-mapping, then the environment, then sovereignty.
Sound familiar? It should. During the last election campaign, Harper was delivering the same talking-points on the Arctic. Here’s a snippet from a Toronto Star story dated Dec. 23, 2005, the middle of the last campaign:
After a week spent pushing back against the perception the Liberals are best placed to handle the nettlesome issue of national unity, Harper yesterday set his sights on demonstrating his party will be able to assert Canada's continental role.
He unveiled the Tory strategy to protect Canada's Arctic sovereignty, a $3.5 billion plan that includes the construction of three new troop-carrying icebreakers, a remote-sensing system to detect the presence of foreign vessels, an Arctic army training centre, and a deep-water naval and civilian port in Iqaluit.
The party would also bolster air patrols, deploy unmanned drones in the region and increase the ranks of the Canadian Rangers, aboriginal militia who travel throughout the most remote areas of the Arctic.
"We would hope that an aggressive approach to our sovereignty would persuade countries to respect that sovereignty and to obviously deal with us before they send vessels in our water," Harper said, adding "sovereignty is something that you use it or you lose it."
Sound familiar? As I said, he recycled the talking points from 2005 for this year’s trip. Now, though, after some two-and-a-half years in government, he has a record of incumbency to consider. That allows us to go beyond his talking points and look at his record of achievement, or lack thereof.
And he did make some big promises, didn’t he?
a $3.5 billion plan that includes the construction of three new troop-carrying icebreakers, a remote-sensing system to detect the presence of foreign vessels, an Arctic army training centre, and a deep-water naval and civilian port in Iqaluit.
Those were the promises. The reality? Far, far less:
Advocates of a robust Arctic strategy note the government has scaled down its plans on the military side. Instead of three new armed icebreakers, for example, the government now says it will build one new icebreaker and buy up to eight Arctic patrol vessels with limited icebreaking ability.
Limited ice breaking ability as in they can only operate in the summer. Useful. And up to eight actually means six. And the procurement process is delayed. So we might see then in 2015. If we’re lucky. And much of the rest of the 2005 promises remain just that: promises.
Promises that may never be realized, according to defence analyst David Jones in an June 27, 2008 Ottawa Citizen column that was scathing of the Conservatives’ much discredited "Canada First Defence Strategy":
But will this come to pass? There is a tendency by outside observers to say, "better than nothing" or "maybe it will work out."
Bluntly, however, an analyst must be skeptical given historical perspective. There has been a Canadian tradition of vast plans connected with half vast implementation. (Remember the Mulroney-era fleet of nuclear submarines?) The real costs of items such as the Arctic icebreaker(s) and the Nanisivik base may prove beyond fiscal justification. The projected increased funding (over 20 years, no less) is hypothetical -- based more on a continued Tory government than any bi- or multi-partisan commitment to significantly improved defence. Likewise, the equipment procurement (and the personnel increases) can be canceled
And indeed, those original promises have been whittled down so substantially as to be barely recognizable:
Mr. Harper will likely face sharp questions over the cancellation of a $2.9-billion plan to build three support ships for the Canadian Navy and the purchase of 12 mid-shore patrol vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard. The support ship project was touted as essential for keeping the overstretched Canadian navy at sea, and the mid-shore vessels were expected to have been used for patrolling the Arctic.
Harper talked big in about protecting Arctic sovereignty in 2005, about using it or losing it. Once elected though, his grandiose promises melted away like an Arctic ice floe. (Surely nothing to do with global warming? – ed.). Now it’s nearly election time, and he’s back again with the same talking points and bellicose rhetoric, and a record of half-fulfilled promises.
Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again
UPDATE: For more on Harper's melting Arctic credibility see Red and Scott. Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers