Lost in the noise of a possible trade war with our closet ally the U.S., is the fact that the Conservative Party has decided to take notice and complain about the ongoing wait for a new space strategy. The attention is in the form of a letter obtained by SpaceQ from Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux of Edmonton Riverbend, the official opposition critic for science in the Conservative shadow cabinet, sent to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Bains.
The letter takes issue with the Liberal government not just on a new strategy, but in how the government has dealt with Honeywell’s takeover over COM DEV and subsequent layoffs. It also takes aim at MDA becoming a business unit within U.S. owned Maxar Technologies, a strategy MDA initiated and created, and ownership of RADARSAT-2. Lastly it takes aim at the U.S. led flagship space telescope program WFIRST which Canada had to bail out on due to a lack of commitment by the government.
Liberal or Conservative government, it doesn’t matter which, both have a recent history of being mostly talk, with little to no action.
In his letter rookie MP Jeneroux says “I am writing to you with respect to the long-awaited Canadian space strategy. It was back in December 2016 that your government first committed to producing a long-term Canadian space strategy. At the time, you committed to a June 2017 release date, as well as to renew and make new appointments to the Space Advisory Board to conduct consultations on creating that strategy. The Board was not put in place until April 18, 2017 – a sure sign that the June 2017 strategy was already on a delayed schedule.”
“The consultations have come and gone, ending in May 2017 when the Board had been in place for just over a month. However, following the release of the 2018 federal budget, the Board sent an email to stakeholders to express that they were ‘very disappointed with Budget 2018 as it did not include funding to address a space strategy.’ This wording draws concern that the well overdue strategy has to reach even the drafting stage.”
Where to start on this politically charged opening. The good news for the space community is that someone from the opposition is paying attention. The bad news, a space strategy is low on the government priority list at the moment with NAFTA, trade wars etc. at the top of the list.
Jeneroux is not wrong in his criticism of the government on the space strategy, though a rough draft of a new high level space strategy was circulated and rejected in June 2017.
And as the opposition critic for science for the Conservatives it is Jeneroux’s job to complain, poke and make the government look bad. But, the hypocrisy is rich.
The Conservatives were most recently in power from 2006 to 2015. In that time they requested the Canadian Space Agency deliver a new long-term space plan which the Prime Minister’s Office quickly scoffed at and rejected. Then in 2014 they released a high level space policy framework with no new plans or finances for the space program. And to top it off, they had already begun the process of lowering the Canadian Space Agency’s base annual funding from $300 million to $260 million. On this point, the Liberals have done nothing to reverse the Conservatives.
Neither the Liberals or Conservatives have much to stand on in the eyes of the space community. From the publics perspective, assuming they even paid attention to the space file, partisan politics would likely form opinion.
Oh those evil companies, Honeywell and Maxar
Jeneroux also takes aim at the government for their inaction in allowing Honeywell to acquire COM DEV and MDA following through on their U.S strategy. Maybe we should forgive the rookie MP for playing the political game he is charged to do and for forgetting a few relevant facts.
He says, after discussing the space strategy, that “in the meantime, the Canadian aerospace and satellite sector has been bleeding talent. in 2016, your government approved the sale of Cambridge, Ontario-based COM DEV to the American company Honeywell. In the fall of 2017, Honeywell announced that it was laying off COM DEV employees due to a downturn in the space and satellite industry. Local media outlets estimated 140 of the 400 employees (35%) at the Cambridge plant were let go.”
The Liberals can’t be faulted for COM DEV selling itself to Honeywell. The downturn referred to was in the geostationary satellite communication market to which COM DEV’s revenue heavily relied on. Even if Honeywell hadn’t bought the company or if the Liberal government had vetoed the takeover, layoffs were coming. The satellite market, was, and is changing and COM DEV wasn’t prepared for it. It also didn’t help that they, like so many other Canadian space companies, can’t rely on the government as being a good customer. For Canadian space companies, especially on the hardware side, if you can’t export, you’re in trouble.
Next up Jeneroux takes aim at MDA’s creation, Maxar Technologies.
Jeneroux says “In October 2017, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) announced their intent to rebrand and incorporate as an American company called Maxar Technologies. MDA is famously known for creating the Canadarm and RADARSAT-2 – two projects Canadians take great pride in, and supported with their tax dollars. In 2008, the U.S. company Alliant Techsystems attempted a takeover of MDA that was blocked by our previous government in the basis MDA had been the beneficiary of generous government funding for research, and that the sale would mean a loss of good jobs in Canada. The now Minister of Transport gave a media interview at the time expressing how damaging the loss of MDA could be to the Canadian space sector. In a CBC interview published on January 11, 2008, Mr. Garneau said keeping MDA in Canada ‘involves a level of commitment, and that means making it viable for a company to do business here.’ This government has failed to do so, and now those good jobs will be lost.”
Jeneroux would have us believe that those 1900 or so jobs in Canada “will be lost.” Perhaps he could provide us a follow-on letter explaining where these jobs will go?
MDA’s reasoning in pursuing and executing its U.S. access plan was to help grow the business. With a limited domestic market and a huge, but tough-to-enter U.S. market due to security issues, MDA created a plan that would see it grow. In so doing it would see a new company, Maxar Technologies, become a U.S. based company. MDA, the Canadian company, now a subsidiary of Maxar, is still incorporated in Canada and is still employing its people. The jobs at MDA are in part dependant on market forces, both domestically and internationally. If MDA executes its business plan, then jobs will be safe. If not, then jobs are lost.
The irony is that successive governments did make investments in MDA through various R&D and other programs with the explicit aim of seeing the company grow and export products. Now that MDA is growing beyond the limited confines of the Canadian market, some are complaining.
MDA’s U.S. access plan could in fact result in more work for Canadians according to new president Mike Greenley.
The Conservatives and their surrogates are using MDA as political fodder to make the government look bad.
Next Jeneroux takes on MDA’s ownership of RADARSAT-2. He says, and referring to that same CBC article in 2008, “A second warning Mr. Garneau expressed in that same article is that in losing MDA as a Canadian company, Canada would be handing over operation of the RADARSAT-2 satellite to a U.S. company. This is the situation we are finding ourselves in now, as U.S.-based Maxar technologies is now ultimately the owner of RADARSAT-2. This is of concern for Canadians because RADARSAT-2 conducts highly detailed surveillance of our Arctic region, and sells that data to third parties. I would like to know if your government has discussed this matter with Maxar Technologies, and how your government plans on limiting risks to Canadian Arctic sovereignty and privacy associated with this new management structure.”
SpaceQ contacted the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development office for a comment on the letter but did not hear back from anyone before the publishing deadline.
SpaceQ also contacted MDA to request a comment on Jeneroux’s letter. An MDA spokesperson provided the following comment from Mike Greenley, group president of MDA. “MDA has a strong cross-Canada footprint and a growing workforce of highly talented Canadian employees. This is the kind of innovative company that should make all Canadians proud. Furthermore, control of RADARSAT-2 remains with MDA, and satellite operation continues to be governed by the operating license issued to MDA by the Canadian Government under Canadian law.”
There is no question that some of the data obtained by RADARSAT-2 has security and defence issues. MDA’s use of the data from RADARSAT-2 is government by the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. That act leans in favour of protecting Canadian security needs, meaning, MDA has strict rules that are enforced to protect sensitive data. Other than some politicians, neither the government or security establishment or the armed forces have raised issues with MDA’s use of sensitive data.
Below is the letter from Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux.