Normally, the word ‘phoenix’ conjures up an image of a proud bird from Egyptian mythology which at the end of its life bursts into flames before giving way to the next generation. Or, if you are much younger or not into 2,000-year old stories, you may think of the second Harry Potter film. Tomato, tomahto.
If you are Canadian, however, you are more likely to conjure up the Phoenix pay fiasco which has been bedeviling the government for over a decade. Apparently, the decision to bring in this software, developed by a private firm with the promise to save the government millions, had actually produced outstanding pay issues totaling CAN$520 million, affecting 150,000 public servants in the first year and a half of its deployment alone.
So, you would conclude that the government would be extra careful in adopting other products, especially those which have implications for national security. And you would be wrong.
The RCMP had signed a contract with Ontario-based Sinclair Technologies which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese telecommunications giant Hytera to supply radio frequency filters, on-site maintenance, and engineering support. The deal was not that big, slightly over $500,000, but the government nonetheless suspended it, apparently at the behest of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
What to make of this? Several things. First and foremost, and most worryingly, it is all but incomprehensible that our government, or any agency thereof, would still deal with the PRC in light of our recent history with that nation. Whether it is foreign interference – the harassment of Uyghurs, Tibetans, dissidents, Falun Gong members and others in Canada – or other mucking about in our land, the PRC is not Canada’s friend. Secondly, the country’s national police force should not be entrusting any part of its communications system, no matter how minor or peripheral, to a non-ally, especially when there are other providers more trustworthy.
Then again, given that the government took years to definitively rule out Huawei in the development of our 5G system, despite our allies having done so much earlier, this is not surprising. Federal governments of both political stripes have performed woefully on national security grounds for many, many years, pointing to a lack of interest in the matter and the absence of a mature intelligence culture that recognises the importance of sensitive material to help decision makers. Canada’s foot-dragging on the Huawei issue most likely did not go unnoticed by our allies, especially the so-called 5 eyes (an intelligence sharing club that also includes Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US), and could very well have led to doubts over what to share with us (we are a net recipient of intelligence and cannot afford to have our partners turn off the taps).
Is there a lesson here? Of course there is, several in fact. China is not our friend. The PRC should not be allowed to participate in any part of our economy that relates to national security. Canadian governments really need to take these matters more seriously. Intelligence agencies need to have a prominent place at the table when these things come up and their advice needs to be taken seriously (in this case, Communications Security Establishment – CSE – must be a key player). I could go on…
The legendary phoenix always sprang back from annihilation. Government systems do not have that luxury.