National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The federal cabinet will soon be asked to pump more money into one of the key civilian projects under the national shipbuilding strategy in what's expected to be the first real test of the Trudeau government's commitment to stick with the Conservative-era program.

The Canadian Press has learned that federal bureaucrats have warned the Liberals that the current $144 million budget for the offshore oceanographic science vessel is inadequate and will need to be topped up in order to complete the vessel.

The science ship will be built by Vancouver-based Seaspan shipyards as part of a package of non-combat vessels meant to replace the coast guard's aging fleet, including the nearly 52-year-old CCGS Hudson research vessel.

If approved by the Trudeau government, it would be the second funding injection for the program in the last eight years.

A series of documents leaked to The Canadian Press show the initial cost of the new research vessel was pegged at $108 million in 2008 and a year later the federal treasury board was required to pump an additional $35 million into the project.

A spokesman for the Fisheries Department, which oversees the coast guard, would not confirm the size of the new funding increase — or the specific reason for it, but suggested the situation is still in flux.

"No increase to the original ... budget has yet been determined," David Walters said.  "Costing information will continue to improve as engineering work for the new vessel progresses."

But a slide deck briefing, dated Nov. 16 and provided to federal ministers, warned that "significant funding decisions" were required for both the navy's planned frigate replacements and the oceanographic science vessel, specifically "whether to provide the budget increase required to complete the project."

It comes at an awkward time, as a cabinet committee is reportedly set to review a controversial decision related to the military shipbuilding project. 

The oceanographic vessel is separate program from three planned fisheries science vessels, which are already under construction at Seaspan and have had their own budget woes. The briefing shows the budget for the fisheries ships increased by 181 per cent to $687 million between 2009 and 2015.

Part of the escalation had to do with the federal government's inexperience in managing "multiple, complex ship projects" in an industry that under previous Liberal and Conservative governments had become moribund.

The documents note there was also a steep learning curve for the Vancouver shipyard, which "needed to find skilled staff, establish capability to undertake design work and learn how to use new facilities — (something that) led to delays and increased cost for offshore fisheries science vessels."

Last week, multiple published reports suggested the Liberals had established a new cabinet committee to examine controversial defence procurement contracts, including decisions made under the national shipbuilding strategy.

The National Post quoted an unidentified industry official as saying the plan to have Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax act as the prime contractor on the navy's planned surface combatant ships is under review.

But the shipbuilding strategy, conceived in 2010 by the Harper government to revive the industry, includes over $5 billion worth of civilian vessels and it's unclear whether the Trudeau government will review those programs in light of the cost overruns.

    

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

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