OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brushed off Treasury Board criticism that his department broke government rules by sole-sourcing $15 million worth of embassy security contracts to a British government agency for Canada's Afghanistan and Pakistan missions.
Baird offered an impassioned defence of the need to protect diplomats in harm's way in the House of Commons on Tuesday when questioned by the NDP's foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar about the matter.
But the minister offered nothing specific in response to the scathing criticism in a Treasury Board letter — obtained by The Canadian Press — that cited Foreign Affairs last year for not following government contracting guidelines in tendering the "non-competitive, emergency contract(s) to the Foreign Commonwealth Office Services (FCO Services)."
FCO Services is a British government agency that has specialized in international security for six decades.
Baird dismissed Dewar's criticism, saying his department is committed to doing everything it can to keep its diplomats safe. He referred to the 2006 death of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry, who was killed by a suicide bomber while travelling in a car in the Taliban's traditional stronghold of Kandahar.
"We've lost 157 Canadians, including one diplomat in Afghanistan. This government will take all the necessary actions we can possibly take to ensure that our diplomats are safe. Look at these two places, both Islamabad and Kabul, these are two of the most dangerous parts of the world, where we ask Canadians to serve and represent Canadian interests and promote Canadian values extensively," Baird told the Commons.
"Issues of national security, issues of urgency are tremendously important and this government will do everything it can to keep our diplomats safe. Frankly, that's what Canadians expect us to do."
Foreign Affairs has refused to answer questions from The Canadian Press about the Treasury Board criticism.
Baird offered Dewar and his Liberal counterpart, MP Dominic LeBlanc, a briefing on the issue prior to Tuesday's question period.
"Oh, there's this CP story. I just want to offer you a briefing," Dewar recalled Baird telling him before they took their seats in the House.
"I said, 'that's interesting, and I might ask a question later about that'."
Afterward, Dewar said he still hadn't received any meaningful answers about why Foreign Affairs chose to break the government's contracting rules, and what has happened to the work that needed to be done to the Kabul and Islamabad embassies.
The government is displaying a pattern of hiding behind national security, a card it has played with the much-maligned purchase of F-35 fighter jets for the military, said Dewar.
"We saw it with the F-35. They use security to cover themselves for accountability. Instead of acknowledging that there's an issue of accountability, they use the fig leaf of security," Dewar said.
"No one was suggesting that people be put in harm's way here. That's not the case here," Dewar added.
"This isn't the opposition critiquing the government on this. It's the Treasury Board. It's internal … why not be accountable here? Why aren't they following the rules here and what are they doing to address that?"
The details of the arrangement between Canada and the British government agency are laid out in the Treasury Board letter.
Treasury Board concluded that a report on the matter by the Foreign Affairs Department's physical resource bureau "does not comply with procedural aspects of the policy for the reporting of emergency contracts."
The bureau, says the letter, "does not make a convincing case for invoking emergency authorities in accordance with TB Contracting Policy.
"In addition, it appears that procedures for undertaking an emergency contract were not completely fulfilled…"
The letter came to light one month after Canada and Britain announced they would consolidate consular services in some embassies as a cost-saving measure, a plan that sparked criticism that the government was compromising its foreign policy interests abroad.
Baird and his British counterpart, William Hague, touted the new arrangement as a way to cut costs by sharing services in some countries, where Britain has a diplomatic mission and Canada does not, or vice versa.
The Treasury Board letter showed that Canada and Britain were engaged in a more lucrative level of diplomatic co-operation a year earlier, on an embassy security arrangement in the capital cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Given the recent difficulties experienced during the implementation of the chancery in Kabul and other physical security projects in this region, the Foreign Commonwealth Office Services (FCO Services) was retained on a sole source basis to provide project management support and physical security expertise services in Kabul and Islamabad to supplement the resources in the Physical Resources Bureau and help deliver the property and security program for these missions."
Foreign Affairs has been given $235 million to improve embassy security in high-risk missions, as well as another $192 million to improve infrastructure of its foreign diplomatic buildings.
Foreign Affairs relied on regulations in government contracting policy that allowed for a sole-sourced contract if "the need is one of pressing emergency in which delay would be injurious to the public interest" and "only one person or firm is capable of performing the contract."
Treasury Board rejected Foreign Affairs' argument on both counts, saying that its argument "is not persuasive that normal contracting procedures could not have been used."