Tuesday, 24 November 2015

New Government, New Ministers, New Prominence, But The Return of Old Problems

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen at climate change event, November 23, 2015. CSA photo.
A few weeks have now passed since the 2015 federal election, and the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking form with a new cabinet and actions to bring its electoral promises to fruition.

Almost every day the new government does something that sets it apart from the ousted Conservative government of Stephen Harper. As I was writing this post, Trudeau met with the provincial premiers, something Harper had refused to do for nearly seven years, and more remarkably, the topic was climate change.

As part of the meeting, the first ministers heard from scientists about climate change, and that part of the meeting was moderated by Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. The event marked the unmuzzling of scientists working on climate change after the Harper years, and new prominence for our astronauts, for Harper was not known to mix with astronauts except when necessary.

When the new government took office on November 4, the old Industry Ministry was replaced with a Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, with Mississauga-Malton MP Navdeep Singh Bains as minister. In addition, Trudeau named Etobicoke North MP Kirsty Duncan as Minister of Science, and assigned her to work as part of a team led by Bains.

And Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and a former president of the Canadian Space Agency, also sits at the Trudeau cabinet table as Minister of Transportation.

Since the Liberals refrained from making specific promises relating to Canada’s space program and space industry, space was not a part of the mandate letters given to Ministers Bains and Duncan, and so it remains to be seen what the new government will do about space.

Astronaut Jeremy Hansen with Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. CSA photo.

Some clues to future directions did emerge last week in the form of speeches by Minister Bains and Sylvain Laporte, the President of the Canadian Space Agency.

Bains, whose riding includes Pearson International Airport and the many aviation contractors that surround it, told the 2015 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 18 that he has spoken with David Emerson, the former Liberal and Conservative minister who authored the 2012 review of Canada’s aerospace and space policies. This suggests that the Emerson report will inform the new government's future actions.

The next day, CSA President Laporte appeared at the 2015 Canadian Space Summit in Vancouver and gave his first address to a Canadian audience since his appointment in March by the Harper government. Laporte had just met ministers Bains and Duncan for the first time a few days earlier, and so there was little he had to announce. 

Many in the audience at the space summit, which was organized by the Canadian Space Society, hope the Liberals will reverse the tight-money policies of the Harper government that have caused distress to Canada’s space contractors, and a lack of opportunity at home for qualified engineers and scientists, especially those just graduated. So when Laporte was asked about the possibility of new money for the CSA, he replied that he has no news on that front but said he hopes for “constructive discussions” with the new ministers.

Laporte, who has worked within the Canadian government through his career, admitted that he does not have a background in space but aimed to demonstrate in his talk that he is working hard to catch up. He added that he is determined to fulfill his five-year mandate at the CSA.

Given that Innovation is a word that now appears in the name of the ministry that includes the CSA and was also used a great deal in Ottawa under the previous government, Laporte’s speech was also peppered with the word. 

That innovation agenda now faces a challenge. Canada’s second largest space contractor and one whose innovations have found their way into most spacecraft flying today, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, announced the day  after the Trudeau government took office that it is being sold to the American contractor, Honeywell International Inc.

Although the deal is structured to avoid a review by the federal government, such a review should be considered because of the important role Com Dev plays in Canada’s space industry.

The Com Dev deal recalls the attempted sale of Canada’s largest space contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., to an American contractor in 2008. Faced with concerns about the security implications of the sale, the Harper government wisely blocked the transaction. 

The new Trudeau government will have to consider the fate of both Com Dev and MDA, and soon, given that federal budget cuts to the CSA have adversely affected the two firms and other Canadian space contractors.

Positive feelings envelop the new government today, but the clock is already running on difficult decisions that must be made on the future of Canada’s space industry. 

CSA President Sylvain Laporte addresses the 2015 Canadian Space Summit. Alma Iridia Barranco image via Twitter.

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