Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Space & Politics in Canada: Fallout from the 41st General Election

I, like many others, watched a generational sea-change in the politics of Canada last night. As Maclean's Magazine's Colby Cosh aptly put it this morning "Four Parties enter, Two Parties leave." The leftmost of the mainstream parties, the NDP saw huge gains in an "orange wave," bringing them up to official opposition status with 102 seats in the house of commons, more than double their previous high of 43. Meanwhile, the Liberal party - above 50% in popular vote and dynastically described as Canada's "Natural Governing Party" just ten short years ago - fell to third place for the first time in 144 years. But for those of us involved with space the real story is that after a 5-year test drive of conservative minority governments, the electorate has handed over the keys of the country to the Conservatives with a majority likely to last at least until 2015.

What does that mean for those of us who work in the Canadian Space Sector? That's an issue that isn't entirely clear. One would think that perhaps the Liberals have a better record on this file. After all, of the agency's 22 year history, 13 years were spent under Liberal governments. The agency's former president, Marc Garneau, was so impressed that he sought election as a Liberal Candidate. While I cannot comment on Garneau's organizational skills, I was always impressed by his hopeful rhetoric; I can remember when he led the charge for Canada to lead its own Mars Mission - an extremely worthy cause and something well within our power if we chose to do it. And true to form, In last night's "vague orange" in Quebec the former astronaut was one of the few Liberal MPs to be reelected.

Of course, Garneau's initiative was never realized by his government. But can we expect better of the Conservatives? Here there is potentially a conflict, and without knowing the resolution it becomes hard to prognosticate.

First, it is thought that the Conservatives will attempt to rein in taxes and overall government spending. If they do, the CSA and associated Space Science/Engineering at Universities could find themselves to be a target. In astronomy, space science and space engineering we are in an aspirational business which represents an investment largely in the country's long-term future. Thus CSA is valuable as a Canadian Symbol and as a motivation for young Canadians to go into science and engineering disciplines. In the short-term, it is also a steady customer which fosters a highly technical home-grown Canadian space industry which provides good jobs for highly trained personnel. But if it came down to reductions in, for example, health care vs reductions in the CSA we know who would win. Thus there is a danger that the CSA could contract down to its treaty obligations and directly-economically justifiable programs in the here and now (e.g. RadarSat, Meteorology, etc.).

At the same time, Conservative governments have tended to be good to the agency. It was the Mulroney administration which set up the CSA in 1989 and it was the Harper Government's throne speech two years ago which mentioned the agency's good work for the first time (and threw a $110 million bonus in stimulus their way). So there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Furthermore, the deficit situation in Canada is not as dire as in the US. So this might be an opportunity for Canada to take the lead in space or really get into the interplanetary business in a serious way.

But for now all I can say is that we don't know which way things will go. In the US, the Republicans (perhaps an ideological model for elements within the Conservative party) were long thought of as a champion of NASA, but have not hesitated to wield a knife in the last couple of budgets. But, things could go differently here. For one, relative to GDP, the CSA is much smaller, representing a 0.022% slice as compared to NASA's 0.135%, so nothing short of deep cuts would yield substantial savings.  Furthermore, I would argue that we cannot really look to the Conservative platform, nor their failed budget for clues. Neither of these documents anticipated the 4 years of stability that are now at hand with this majority. That gives the government breathing room to pick a course and stick with it. All we can do is wait and see which way they choose to go.
For some of my reasoning about why we might want to invest more in Canada's Space Sector you can review one of my older posts here. If you're visiting from the PMO, might I suggest something along these lines? In particular, CSA has a nascent program called SSEP, deserving of your support, which provides grants to fund work at universities on a competitive basis. This program trains personnel and gets work done at low cost simultaneously. As well, I should note that small Mars missions, at a cost of $500 million spread over five-plus years (and possibly much less given adequate commercial involvement and investment), are within the realm of the possible for an agency that spends $300 million a year.


  1. All good points. Keep in mind however that the conservative budget includes a 12 - 18 month "aerospace" review.

    For my take on that, you're welcome to take a look at my article "Orange Skys over CSA Headquarters" at http://acuriousguy.blogspot.com/2011/05/orange-skies-over-csa-headquarters.html#.

  2. It should be interesting to see the outcome of that review. I notice that you also talk about Garneau - in the speculation since the election, I have seen that he is amongst those who might be considering a role as party leader for the Liberals either in the interim or more long-term.