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Fantino's stickhandling will be tested in defence contracts

Julian Fantino is sworn in as Associate Minister of Defence at Rideau Hall on May 18, 2011.


Winning a majority government doesn't make everything easier. Take, for example, the headache facing the Conservatives as they negotiate to buy the cost overrun-prone F-35 fighter-bomber from the United States, where a top Pentagon official recently called the jet-building program unaffordable without revisions.

Helping sort this out and defend Canada's purchase will now be Julian Fantino's yoke to bear as the newly minted associate minister of defence with responsibility for procurement.

Mr. Fantino will contend with two constants in his new job: Buying military hardware is infuriatingly complicated, and it gets more difficult during an era of belt-tightening.

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The retired cop's appointment as Ottawa's No. 2 defence minister after Peter MacKay gives the military a second voice at the cabinet table to promote and defend its big spending plans during a period of restraint when others might be inclined to delay.

It also provides Stephen Harper with a point man to shepherd military procurement decisions through Ottawa's frustrating and delay-plagued buying process - an assignment that may leave the Prime Minister feeling better-served on this file than in recent years.

The military has embarked on a two-decade plan to upgrade the equipment of the Canadian Forces. Replacing core hardware at a total cost of $45-billion to $50-billion will require adroit decisions over the next few years, yet the Tories have been forced to defend their procurement smarts in the face of a stream of reports suggesting the 65 stealth fighter-bombers they've agreed to buy will cost far more than what Mr. MacKay and other cabinet players said in July, 2010.

The Defence Department remains adamant that its F-35 cost estimates are solid, despite congressional testimony from the Pentagon's top buying official last week that the jet program currently has "an unacceptably high acquisition bill" and must find cost savings. The Pentagon's latest estimate of ongoing maintenance costs, released last month, show upkeep forecasts have more than doubled.

The Conservatives have also so far failed to deliver on a 2006 campaign promise to replace Canada's search and rescue planes - an obligation estimated at $3-billion. In 2008, they found themselves forced to cancel and start over on billions of dollars in procurement plans for naval supply ships and Coast Guard patrol vessels when Ottawa couldn't find bids at the price it wanted.

The solution to these and other procurement problems appears to be Mr. Fantino.

The MP for Vaughan, north of Toronto, he was named associate minister of defence in the May 18 cabinet shuffle that produced the executive team Mr. Harper will rely on to steer his new majority government.

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Mr. Fantino is likely to fit in at National Defence. As an ex-police officer, he has worn a uniform much of his professional life, including as chief of police in Toronto and as commissioner of Ontario's provincial force, and is used to working with big bureaucracies.

His biggest challenge may be shipbuilding, not jets.

Mr. Fantino will have to ride herd on what could prove to be the toughest procurement headache for the Conservatives: a series of contracts to build major combat, patrol and scientific vessels.

The Harper government is preparing to kick off the biggest round of public shipbuilding in Canada since the Second World War - bids are due this summer - but parcelling out the work threatens to cause the Conservatives political grief. Instead of spreading the work around more broadly, Ottawa has decided to divide the $33-billion in large-vessel construction between just two shipyards. Pitting shipyards in three regions against one another, the competition ensures that one - on the East Coast, in Quebec or on the West Coast - will end up a loser.

The Irving yard in Halifax, one of Canada's largest, is considered a strong contender for one contract - which would leave Quebec and B.C.'s Vancouver Shipyards fighting for the second.

Mr. Fantino's more private challenge may be negotiating his relationship with Mr. MacKay, who is more than two decades his junior.

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The Defence Minister felt the need on Day One of the Fantino appointment to make it publicly clear he is the senior player. "He'll be reporting up through me on these procurement files, and Julian has tremendous experience within a chain of command," Mr. MacKay said.

Friction can naturally develop in a department where two ministers, both used to being in charge, have to work together on files of enormous political significance to the Prime Minister's Office. It has happened before when Ottawa had both a defence minister and an associate defence minister, a department source familiar with previous cases said.

"There's always a suspicion from either office that one of them is pipelining stuff to the PMO," the source said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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