At some point during Monday's debate on buying subway trains in a sole-source deal with Bombardier possibly when the reheated rhetoric (it's not democracy if everyone doesn't get to say again what everyone just said) was at its height it dawned on me that those arguing for the deal actually had yet to raise a single argument against an open-tender process.
Don't get me wrong. I fully support the $710 million deal that promises to create 300 new Bombardier jobs in Thunder Bay, give us 234 safer and more reliable cars, generate regional wealth, lower TTC capital costs and toss more income tax to the province and feds, the prime funders.
But why wasn't there at least someone backing the deal who could also make an argument for the importance of an open process? Unfortunately, they didn't really have to. In taking the helm of opposition, the frequent tag team of councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong and Karen Stintz made every single possible argument for it, and one or two impossible ones.
"We know it's a good price, but we don't know it's the best price,' said Minnan-Wong. Questioned about the possibility of an open tender driving up the price by delaying the deal and requiring legal resources, he answered, "There's a higher cost associated with open, transparent government. You can't put a price tag on open, transparent government."
We deserve a lower price, and we should be willing to pay more to get it.
While he seemed to argue on principle, Minnan-Wong's scattershot enthusiasm naturally raised questions of lobbying by Siemens. "I've stated publicly that I've met with both Siemens and Bombardier," he said. "I'm not saying I want Siemens to get it. I'm saying I want an open tender."
Yet he also moved that council refer the deal back to the TTC with a stipulation that at least 60 per cent of the manufacturing be done in Canada, something not even Bombardier can currently do, prompting councillor and former TTC chair Howard Moscoe to call Minnan-Wong's seemingly ethical objection a "poison pill."
The most common argument against other firms is that they would acquire their parts from countries with lax or nonexistent labour regulations.
Stintz pointed out that Bombardier, having recently signed a deal with the Chinese government, now makes planes in China. "Subways don't fly, Councillor," chided Moscoe.
"No," countered Stintz, "but the jobs in Toronto will."
This is a new concern for Minnan-Wong and Stintz. "Made in Canada" wasn't the rallying cry first raised by opponents of bypassing the tender process. But, then, the homegrown benefits of sole-sourcing seem to be a new concern for the deal boosters.
In April 2005, TTC staff made a recommendation that the contract for new TTC subway cars be put out in an open tender. Commissioners whole-heartedly agreed. In September 2005, in a closed session, commissioners changed their mind. Staff never did. In March, a request was made for Bombardier's proposal. That proposal was received in May.
Asked why he changed his mind about an open tender, Moscoe said it was a Globe and Mail article on the desire for new trains. In it, Siemens mentioned that it would be manufacturing in China; Moscoe says he then felt moved to go the sole-source route.
Of course, proponents of the deal would say this debate is irrelevant. "City council cannot direct the TTC on procurement," said the mayor. Certainly, David Miller has never discussed transit procurement with councillors Moscoe, Joe Mihevc, Brian Ashton and Deputy Mayor Sandra Bussin.
The TTC, as Councillor Suzan Hall pointed out, is "an arm's-length body of city council" an arm's length body composed of nine city councillors (including its most recently appointed one, Suzan Hall).
As the salvos flew from right and left, those in the middle tended to be the voices of reason. Councillor Maria Augimeri spoke of the ultimate value of the deal but against idealizing Bombardier. "They didn't flinch when they outsourced 250 jobs from [their former site at] Downsview to India," she said.
For his part, Councillor David Soknacki asked why a tender and regional economics are exclusive. "We stand for Canadian jobs, but we also stand for the vulnerable in this city, and if we spend too much in one area we have to cut in another," he said. "I believe we need to have the information to be able to say, "This is the decision we've made, and this is why.' Right now all we have is information from the TTC and disgruntled competitors."
A shame, in the end, to see nuanced positions reduced to the binary option of voting. Augimeri voted for it, Soknacki against.
While the deal sets a valuable precedent of buying Canadian first, getting in the habit of open tenders for their own sake could set a precedent for requesting and evaluating tenders beyond just fiscal concerns. Not to mention that less ethics-minded councillors to come might love to inherit this precedent. There's no reason a tender couldn't have been done.
Well, perhaps one. Federal funding for the deal, it turns out, may be contingent on Bombardier's involvement, pursuant to the Canadian Strategic Infrastructure Fund. And both Moscoe and the mayor say the province has actively encouraged the deal. There is a 1992 provincial requirement to sole-source, but in truth, staff aren't sure whether these are binding stipulations.
Of course it was the precariousness of provincial funding that made the TTC hold off on a new deal until the last minute making a lengthy tender less tenable. In other words, both sides of the debate are right. And both are wrong not to place the province's role under closer scrutiny.
At any rate, the motion to support the Bombardier deal passed 25 to 18. Aren't you looking forward to those new trains, though? Finally.