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Seaspan wins second prize in shipbuilding contracts

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark smiles after speaking at Seaspan Shipyards in North Vancouvern on Tuesday, June 7, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail/Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has landed her first lucky break in her jobs plan courtesy of the $8-billion federal shipbuilding contract awarded to Seaspan Marine Corp.

The Premier jumped on the bandwagon late in the game, first expressing support for the company in the spring, just weeks before Seaspan delivered its 30,000-page bid to the federal government detailing the engineering, design and financial details of how it could deliver on either of the two contracts on offer.

Ms. Clark was lightning-fast on Wednesday to claim credit for the victory, albeit a second-place finish.

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Just moments after learning the news, she called Seaspan CEO Jonathan Whitworth to congratulate him. "It was great working with you, I'm glad we were successful together," she said on her cellphone as she passed reporters outside the caucus room.

The province's commitment to the B.C. bid fell short of what Seaspan had hoped. The B.C. Liberal government has a no-subsidies policy, which has denied such assistance to the shipyards. However, other industries, such as filmmaking, have worked around the policy.

Ms. Clark eventually offered job training tax credits that could be worth as much as $40-million, but will likely cost far less.

It's a small investment for a big return, both to the economy and to Ms. Clark, who could use some good news as her political fortunes sag in the polls. She bailed out on plans for a fall election, instead promising to focus on job creation in a timorous economic climate.

"You know what's so great about this? It's the beginning of a jobs plan for British Columbia," she told reporters who were invited into the B.C. Liberal caucus room to witness the celebration. "What this means is, we will see thousands of jobs come to British Columbia as a result of this federal money."

Mr. Whitworth had been aiming for the larger contract, worth $25-billion. But on Wednesday there was nothing but relief in his voice. The smaller contract is big enough.

"If we wouldn't have won this, it probably would have been the death of the industry," he said in an interview. "Fortunately, today we get to see the rebirth. We see an industry that was probably close to its last legs now come back."

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The B.C. government baulked at Seaspan's request for a tax credit to help it bring its infrastructure up to snuff to deliver on this contract, which would have improved its bid.

Mr. Whitworth said it is too early to say if greater support might have landed B.C. the larger contract.

"I don't know if it would have made a difference," he said. "I have nothing but praise and credit for Premier Clark because she did pick it up from Day One" after she was sworn in.

But he did allow that B.C. shipyards have been starved by the government's policy.

"If we compare ourselves to shipyards out east which have received hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, loans, forgivable loans, it has hurt here. We have not had the infrastructure investment here that we have in the eastern shipyards."

Now Seaspan needs to spend between $160-million and $200-million in the next three years on upgrading its infrastructure.

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In the end, he said, the company can't argue that the no-subsidies policy proved to be a critical setback. "I guess not. We just won an $8-billion package."

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