Local reaction was swift to the news the federal Conservative government may consider privatizing military search and rescue (SAR) operations in Canada.
A story in the Ottawa Citizen reported the privatization option will be up for discussion at a meeting between government procurement officials and representatives from aerospace firms in Ottawa Aug. 16.
The Citizen reported a discussion will take place at the meeting on options for purchasing fixed-wing aircraft.
Among those options will be alternate service delivery — a term used to describe the hiring of private industry to provide government services.
Jack Harris, NDP MP for St. John’s East and Opposition de-fence critic, said people should be concerned and scared by news the Conservatives are considering privatization.
“They’ve shown very little understanding of (SAR) in the past number of years,” said Harris, who is also vice-chairman of Parliament’s defence committee. “They really have yet to recognize the importance of having a faster service after 4 p.m. and on the weekends for SAR helicopters, and the incompetent decision to close the SAR marine co-ordinating centre in St. John’s shows a lack of understanding of the needs.”
Premier Kathy Dunderdale, in a statement sent to The Telegram, cautioned the federal government to wade carefully on the privatization issue.
“The bottom line here is that search and rescue services for the people of our province must not be negatively impacted — safety is the No. 1 priority,” she stated.
“The Federal Government needs to be very careful here and ensure they consult with the people who may be impacted by any changes they might consider, before taking any action. Furthermore, any changes considered should be subject to a vigorous review involving input from both experts and those on the ground who have the local knowledge which is so important.”
Efforts to replace the aging fleet of fixed-wing Buffalo aircraft have been ongoing for several years. Purchased in 1969, the planes have experienced mechanical problems,and replacing parts has become an issue in recent years.
Harris said with SAR a clear mandate of the Canadian Forces, it’s a service Canadians expect them to carry out.
“We have a military with a very large budget, and we see priorities going to things like the F-35 program and building bases in other countries instead of focusing on increasing the service that’s provided to protect Canadians,” he said, adding the training and competency levels of SAR personnel is very high.
“Resources should be put into that, not into trying to find out how you can save a few dollars here and there by looking at privatization.”
In a statement sent to The Telegram, federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue emphasized the role of the Canadian Coast Guard in handling marine SAR, highlighting increased national spending on the coast guard since 2006 and the addition of personnel and ice-breakers in this province.
"Marine search and rescue is the primary responsibility of the Canadian Coast Guard,” said the Labrador MP. “We have no intentions of privatizing the Canadian Coast Guard.”
As for the Department of National Defence’s role in SAR, he said the federal government will consider all options to provide the best service.
Liberal MP Scott Simms represents Gander, the home of 9 Wing Gander and the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron. He expects privatization could spell trouble for the base, even with millions of dollars earmarked for new military buildings in Gander.
Fish, Food and Allied Workers' union president Earle McCurdy contends the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to reduce the scope of government.
“There are some things that are core government services that are not appropriate for privatization,” said McCurdy, who added a private company put in charge of SAR may value savings over saving lives, resulting in reduced salaries and the use of less-qualified personnel.
Both provincial opposition leaders expressed dismay over the possibility of privatizing military SAR services in separate news releases.
Liberal leader Yvonne Jones said this may only be the beginning in moves by the Harper government to privatize government services, while NDP leader Lorraine Michael pondered what it would mean for SAR services to go through a tender process.
“Will the government take the lowest bid and hand us a reduced search and rescue capability that might cost lives?”
With the SAR issue having such a high profile in Newfoundland and Labrador since the tragedy of the Cougar helicopter crash in 2009 that killed 17 people, Harris said an effort needs to be made to make SAR more of a national issue.
“The North is not very well served, and even the Great Lakes are not very well served in terms of equipment used,” he said.