Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Canada's Space Program, the Election and the New Federal Government

Marc Garneau, the Liberal MP for Notre-Dame-de-GrĂ¢ce-Westmount.

The federal election just concluded on October 19 will be remembered for its result and its length, and by some people for the fact that space emerged as a minor issue.

In its fifty-seven years or so of existence, Canada’s space program has rarely been a matter of controversy, let alone an election issue. And when the 2015 election campaign began on August 2, there was little to indicate that this would change. Maclean’s, Canada’s self-styled national magazine, published a special Space Issue a month into the campaign, and the only mentions of Canada’s space program came in "where-are-they-now" interviews with our astronauts.

But New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair got the space policy ball rolling in the campaign on September 8 when he formally promised $40 million over four years for the Canadian Space Agency’s technology development program as part of his National Aerospace Plan. More recently, the NDP put out a humorous internet meme promoting its space promise.

On September 12, the Canadian Press  quoted a prominent Liberal and a leading New Democrat promising that the CSA would finally get a long-promised and long-delayed long-term plan, and more funds to carry out that plan should their parties form government. 

New Democrat Peggy Nash and Liberal Marc Garneau, who is also Canada’s first astronaut, responded positively to the Canadian Space Commerce Association’s call for the long-term space plan, with Nash pointing to Mulcair’s promise and Garneau suggesting but not promising that a Liberal government would provide more funds. The Conservatives did not respond to the call for a long-term plan.

On October 12, the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) in Canada issued a press release calling for the CSA’s budget to be stabilized, not only in terms of dollars but in terms of buying power. The CSA’s base budget was set at about $300 million in 1999, and it has stayed near that figure since then, despite the major fall in its real value due to inflation and currency fluctuations. SEDS Canada, which represents 11 groups around the country, warned that continued reductions to CSA’s budget threaten Canada’s $3.5 billion space industry and the livelihoods of 8,200 Canadians in highly specialized and highly paid jobs.

Canada’s space budget is a fraction of the U.S. space budget, even on a per capita basis. There are a number of individual hospitals in Canada that have bigger budgets than the CSA. But even when looked at purely as an economic driver and a generator of high technology exports, our space program is one of the best investments Canadian taxpayers make.

But the calls from the students and space advocacy groups, coupled with meagre order books at Canadian space contractors, signify that more help is needed for the space sector than the $40 million promised by the NDP.

This election turned on much larger issues than the CSA. Canadians basically decided that it was time to remove a Conservative government that, amongst other things, muzzled scientists, twisted democratic institutions to its own ends, threatened the rights of minorities for political reasons, and proved to be a poor manager of the economy.

The record of Stephen Harper’s government in space had some good points, notably the decision in 2008 to block Canadian space contractor MDA’s sale to an American competitor. But the CSA suffered from policy neglect and financial cutbacks as the Harper government searched for money for its narrow political priorities. Harper named Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the retired head of Canada’s defence staff, to bring some heft to the top job at CSA, but 15 months later, Natynczyk was moved out of CSA to help the government deal with the consequences of its poor treatment of veterans.

Sylvain Laporte, the longtime civil servant appointed as CSA president by Harper in March, is slated to make his first major speech at the Canadian Space Summit in Vancouver on November 19. 

Now there will be a new Liberal majority government in Ottawa. While the Liberals have made no clear commitments to Canada’s space program, it will have a powerful advocate at the cabinet table. Marc Garneau, who served as president of the CSA between his times as an astronaut and as a politician, probably won’t have direct responsibility for space, but as one of the senior members of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, he will be in a strong position to bring positive change to Canada’s space program.

If Garneau succeeds as an advocate for the space program, he will bring an end to years of neglect at the hands of both the Harper Conservatives and the Chretien-Martin Liberal government that preceded it. It appears that the agency will need more attention and more new money than any party promised in the election campaign. Justin Trudeau has promised real change, but in space as on Earth we must wait to see if his actions in government live up to that promise.

The NDP's humorous internet meme from the recent campaign.