The Scene. Thomas Mulcair had a simple question. And lest the House fail to appreciate the simplicity, he said so explicitly.
“Mr. Speaker,” the opposition leader prefaced, “I want to ask a very simple question of the Prime Minister.”
Specifically and simply, Mr. Mulcair wanted to know whether Mr. Harper thought it acceptable for a minister to knowingly mislead Parliament in the exercise of its functions.
Mr. Harper seemed to seek a word of clarity from Peter Van Loan before rising. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I am not certain of the subject of that question, but obviously I expect that ministers tell the truth at all times.”
That much established for the record, Mr. Mulcair moved to his second question.
“Mr. Speaker, on April 5 in this House the Minister of National Defence said about the F-35, and I quote: ‘No money has been spent on this file,’ ” Mr. Mulcair recounted, speaking deliberately.
It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that the NDP leader did not raise this for the purpose of saluting Peter MacKay’s commitment to clarity and transparency.
“That is completely and utterly false,” Mr. Mulcair ventured. “The government has disbursed over $335 million on the F-35 program, more is committed. The Prime Minister knows it, the Minister of National Defence knows it. Does the Prime Minister believe that it was acceptable for his minister to mislead Parliament?”
From down the front row, the ever-ready John Baird shouted about “acquisition” to the Prime Minister.
“Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition knows full well that the Minister of National Defence was referring to acquisition costs for the aeroplane,” Mr. Harper duly reported. “The government, in fact, has not bought any aircraft. It has not yet signed a contract. It has not yet acquired any aircraft.”
Mr. Mulcair was not done.
“Mr. Speaker, pilot training is a key life-cycle cost, one that seems to be left out of the Conservative’s creative accounting on the F-35. The air force is categorical: under the Conservative’s plan it cannot even afford to train the pilots,” he reported. “Life-cycle costs have to be considered in every military equipment purchase, Treasury Board guidelines require it. The Minister of National Defence ignored the guidelines and misled Parliament on this as well. Is the defence minister’s repeat contempt for Parliament acceptable to the Prime Minister, yes or no?”
In his seat, Peter MacKay shook his head at the opposition leader’s assertions. It was Mr. Harper who stood to offer that response in verbal form.
“Mr. Speaker, of course, the minister has done no such thing,” the Prime Minister testified. “I think we have been very clear on this. We said specifically that the minister was referring, and the record is very clear on this, to acquisition costs.
This much seems mostly to have been an answer to Mr. Mulcair’s second question.
“There are other costs obviously involved in our budgets that are also accounted for,” Mr. Harper continued. “The government has been expending money on development costs with the strong support not only of the Royal Canadian Air Force but also of the aviation industry based in this country.”
These sentences are possibly an answer to something, though one could debate how they apply to Mr. Mulcair’s third question.
Obviously, it is very clear that the truth, specifically, remains a point of some debate.
In this regard, a few reminders are in order. The word “contract” does not necessarily indicate an obligation. The number $16 billion is not necessarily absolute. And the idea of 20 years is not particularly applicable.
And when so much is amorphous, perhaps the only understandable result is confusion.
Whereas Mr. Mulcair aimed for simplicity, Bob Rae opted for sweeping pleading (though not quite of the sort that inspired Ralph Goodale yesterday to table the rare eight-part query).
“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General concluded that the government gave Parliament information which was inaccurate and insufficient. The Auditor General found that the government did not take into account the cost of getting new planes in the case of attrition, did not take into account the fact that there is a maintenance cost which is higher for an F-35 than it is for an F-18. All of these things are clearly laid out in the Auditor General’s report,” Mr. Rae reviewed, voice raised, index finger extended. “The government has said it accepts the conclusions of the Auditor General’s report. It accepts his findings, all of them. Why will the government not admit that in fact it has been misleading Parliament by giving us information which is neither accurate nor complete? Why will the government not finally admit that?”
Here the Prime Minister came surprisingly close to acknowledging that something had not quite gone perfectly.
“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General questioned the reliability and the completeness of information that the department had provided on these costs,” he conceded. “That is why the government has committed explicitly to reexamining those numbers as suggested by the Auditor General before we move forward.”
So close to the sort of concession the opposition desires and yet, so far. But of the need for reexamination at least, all sides are generally agreed.
The Stats. Ethics, 10 questions. Military procurement, five questions. Old Age Security, the RCMP, railways, border security, science, fisheries, food safety and employment, two questions each. Search and rescue, Burma, oil industry, prisons, labour, crime, immigration and Cuba, one question each.
Stephen Harper and Peter Van Loan, six responses each. Vic Toews, five responses. Denis Lebel, four responses. Keith Ashfield, three responses. Diane Finley, Dean Del Mastro, Peter Kent and Pierre Lemieux, two responses each. Bev Oda, Pierre Poilievre, John Baird, Joe Oliver, Lisa Raitt, Rob Nicholson and Jason Kenney, one response each.