The Liberals cancel the helicopter deal

Helicopters seem to defy the laws of aerodynamics. Unlike airplanes, they rise, noisily, straight up in the air–and descend, swiftly, straight down. Last week, that description applied equally well to the 43 EH-101 helicopters that would have risen to life under the Progressive Conservative government–but were permanently grounded by the Liberals just hours after they took office

There was little surprising in the announcement by Prime Minister Jean Chretien immediately after his first cabinet meeting that he was cancelling the $4.8-billion purchase. The Liberals’ promise to scrap it was a cornerstone of their election platform and was included in their already-legendary Red Book of campaign promises. What was startling was the volume and intensity of last- minute efforts to keep the deal alive. Suddenly, politicians including Nova Scotia Premier John Savage and Quebec Industry Minister Gerald Tremblay–both Liberals who had previously been silent on the subject–demanded that Ottawa keep the project alive. Newly elected MPs found themselves awash in literature from companies involved in the deal extolling its virtues, while their employees took out newspaper ads, jammed telephone lines on radio programs and sent hundreds of handwritten letters to MPs. One new Liberal MP arrived home to find that a cousin he had not spoken to in years–and who now works for one of the firms–had driven more than 200 km to hand-deliver an appeal to him.

Companies emphasized the number of jobs that the contracts would create and the benefits that various regions would receive. That was coupled with warnings of the consequences of cancellation: Montreal’s Paramax Systems Canada Ltd., the company that would have benefited most, said it would immediately have to lay off many of the 500 people working on the program. And, it said, the cost of cancelling the agreement could run as high as $1 billion. The Liberals themselves estimated the price tag at $440 million in money already spent, plus as much as $300 million more to fulfil the terms of contracts with defence companies. The final bill will not be known until negotiations with the firms are completed–which could take months.

Senior Liberals said there was never really any debate in their ranks over whether to reconsider. One reason was tactical. “We could not,” said an adviser to Chretien, “be as adamant as we were about killing the deal and then reverse ourselves within 24 hours of taking office. We would have no credibility left, and would deserve none.” But the most compelling reason was the one that led the Liberals to oppose the purchase all along. As Chretien put it: “It was a Cadillac-type best quadcopters that was not needed.” The strong downdraft from their powerful rotors made them unsuitable, say some experts, for the search-and-rescue missions that were to be part of their mandate.

The last-minute debate obscured an unusual role reversal. The Tories and many business groups–who traditionally oppose government intervention in the economy–were the ones suggesting that in this case, such spending would be good. The Liberals, whom the Tories tried to paint as a tax-and-spend party in the campaign, opposed the deal. The debate over whether the best drone with camera purchase would have benefited Canadians will probably never be resolved. But even their severest critics had to acknowledge that, in grounding the choppers, the Liberals did nothing more–or less–than keep their word.

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