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Harper's 'refreshing' approach to shipbuilding contracts gets thumbs up from lobbyist

October 21, 2011: Summa Strategies Canada Inc. president Tracey Hubley photographed during an interview in Ottawa.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/dave chan The Globe and Mail

It was a process deliberately designed to keep out lobbyists – but, in the end, even lobbyists loved it.

This week, the Harper government awarded $33-billion in contracts to two Canadian shipyards – one in Halifax, the other in Vancouver – to build combat and non-combat vessels.

And while they are celebrating on the east and west coasts, here in political Ottawa the debate is over why future procurement contracts – such as that multibillion-dollar, fifth-generation, fighter-jet deal – cannot be structured the same way as the shipbuilding contracts.

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Bring it on, says Tracey Hubley, president of Summa Strategies, one of two lobbying firms in Ottawa representing Vancouver's Seaspan Marine. She chalked up another win for her team as the West Coast shipyard won the $8-billion portion of the contract to build non-combat vessels.

"I wish they would do this for all of their procurements," she says. "This was unlike any process that I've witnessed over the last 12 years that I've been a lobbyist."

At 47, Ms. Hubley is one of only a handful of women defence procurement lobbyists. It's very much a boys' club. But she's good, helping win deals on everything from helicopters to the $1.8-billion contract for the four massive Boeing C-17 Globemaster strategic lift aircraft.

By all accounts, the shipbuilding contract process was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Everything was kept tightly held to just a few bureaucrats. There were no leaks. Not even the cabinet was involved, nor did the Prime Minister have a clue as to the successful shipyards until shortly before the announcement was made public.

This was all to avoid any taint of political influence. No way did the government want a repeat of the controversy the Mulroney government provoked with its awarding of the CF-18 maintenance contract to Quebec.

"Actually it was really quite refreshing," Ms. Hubley says. "You stated your case. You offered up your solution. It was based on merit … it removed it from the political influence, which is the politician not so much the lobbyist."

For the politicians, she argues, this was more "high stakes" because of what it means for their ridings and regions – jobs, jobs and more jobs.

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"I've got to say the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy really at the end of the day was a national shipbuilding procurement strategy," she says. "Compliments to the Harper government."

This, despite the fact that the Harper government has little time for lobbyists.

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who was in charge of the shipbuilding process, made it clear in a June speech that, in order to keep political influence "completely arm's-length," companies bidding on the contract would not be allowed to "engage lobbyists."

That did not go over well with lobbyists. They were outraged, arguing their work provides a legitimate service and would not compromise the strategy.

Besides, Ms. Hubley says, lobbyists do more than lobby. On this file, she "gathered information and provided strategic advice" to her client on how to get out their message, engage the public and also ensure that the Western provincial governments were engaged.

"This was a bit different because it was actually the branding of the shipyard and the capability to deliver and making sure that everybody knew that there is a viable … and profitable shipbuilding industry on the West Coast," she says.

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"You always think East Coast [when it comes to shipbuilding] It's not the case," Ms. Hubley says. "I'm an easterner, from Prince Edward Island, making the case for the West."

In tipping her hat to the Harper government for running a clear process, she is adding her voice to others, including Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who want more of the same.

At Thursday's Question Period, Mr. Rae asked Stephen Harper why he couldn't use this same non-partisan competition for the purchase of "several billion dollars worth of new fighter jets for this country?"

"That contract is a fiasco," he argued. "The government has numbers which no one believes. There is no fairness opinion. There is no objective opinion … "

The Prime Minister dismissed his characterization. "Of course one of the elements of such a transparent, non-partisan and fair process is we do not reopen it later," Mr. Harper said. "The fact of the matter is the previous Liberal government was part of an international process to select an aircraft company to develop the fifth-generation fighter. That is obviously why this government is proceeding in that way."

Too bad, Ms. Hubley says. "I wish the government had started it earlier and continues to do it. I think it creates a transparent environment, that everybody knows the rules of engagement, and may the best bid win."

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