The Commons: A long night of known unknowns

Less than 10 minutes into the evening, the NDP's Jack Harris seemed to give up hope

Sean Kilpatrick/CP Images

Less than 10 minutes into the evening, the NDP’s Jack Harris seemed to give up hope.

“I can see what kind of night this is going to be,” he sighed.

Mr. Harris stood here for the purposes of questioning the Minister of Defence and the Associate Minister of Defence, no less than four hours set aside for the purposes of scrutinizing the government’s policies and plans. The ministers in question—Peter MacKay and Julian Fantino—sat along the front row of the government side, each with a large binder of papers in front of them. With the two ministers sat Chris Alexander and Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretaries present and past, each with their own large binder of papers. And in front of the four Conservatives sat three officials, including the chief of defence staff, at a small table placed in the centre aisle, each official having arrived with a large binder of papers.

With so much paper present, the night had seemed so full of promise.

Mr. Harris, standing like a smalltown lawyer in a mostly empty House, staring directly across at the government delegation, was interested in documents, dates, numbers and names.

Could the minister confirm that the Department of National Defence considered two other planes in addition to the F-35?

“With respect to the F-35, we are being guided by the findings and the recommendation made by the Auditor General. It is our intent to engage the secretariat, obviously. We have already done so,” Mr. Fantino explained. “With respect to the going forward plan, we have a seven-point strategic plan of action going forward. The answers to most of these items will be forthcoming, once the secretariat does its work.”

Could the minister confirm that those two other planes were the Eurofighter and Boeing Super Hornet?

“Madam Chair, I am happy to be able to assist the honourable member opposite,” Mr. Fantino reported. “Again, no decisions have been made with respect to the selection of a replacement for the aging CF-18 aircraft. That work will be forthcoming once we have the secretariat’s findings with respect to the issues that the Auditor General brought forward in his recommendations to that effect. Decisions with respect to replacement aircraft for those CF-18 will be made at that time.”

Could the minister say whether there was any documentation provided to support the conclusion that the F-35 was the proper plane to purchase?

“Madam Chair, again, with respect to the future decisions to be made, they will be forthcoming once the secretariat has done the work that the Auditor General has requested,” Mr. Fantino testified. “We are committed to ensuring that the seven-point action plan is followed, and decisions will be forthcoming once those answers are provided.”

It was at this point that the hope in Mr. Harris’ heart was apparently extinguished. It flickered for all of three questions.

When it was John McKay’s turn, the Liberal wondered what document provided the basis for the government’s understanding of first-strike capability.

“Madam Chair, there has been a lot of research, a lot of work and a lot of studies carried on with respect to the methodology and appropriate replacement for our aging CF-18s,” Mr. Fantino responded. “A lot of these issues will be forthcoming once we have the Auditor General’s recommendation fleshed out.” Mr. McKay repeated his question. Mr. Fantino repeated his use of the word “forthcoming” without actually being so.

Mr. McKay stated his question several more times. Mr. Fantino looked ahead to the possibility of answering. “Madam Chair, at this point in time, we do not have all of the requisite requirements details,” he offered. “Those issues will be forthcoming once a definite decision is made. That decision will be forthcoming.”

Mr. McKay wondered if the minister was saying the government had no such document. Mr. Fantino suggested that perhaps the document was included in a collection of documents tabled with a parliamentary committee. Mr. McKay attempted to clarify the document’s lack of existence. Mr. Fantino ventured that, as a member of the aforementioned parliamentary committee, Mr. McKay should know the answer to his own question. “He is a member of that committee and I would assume that he would have read them by now,” Mr. Fantino harrumphed of the documents already provided.

(Peter MacKay would later rise to say that no such document existed because the term “first-strike capability” only applied to the use of nuclear weapons, which Canada resolutely does not possess.)

Mr. McKay moved on, asking about the per hour cost of operating the F-35. This time when Mr. Fantino was not forthcoming, Mr. McKay went ahead and answered his own question. Mr. McKay asked about the per hour cost of operating the F-18, a plane this country presently owns. “There is a secretariat in place whose job and responsibility is to bring those costs forward in a factual, organized fashion, and we are waiting for that to happen,” Mr. Fantino offered.

Mr. McKay’s turn culminated in an attempt by the Liberal to ascertain how the F-35’s service would be split between North American and overseas airspace. Peter MacKay first deemed this a discussion about the unknowable. Mr. McKay came back incredulous. “The government,” he lamented, “is flying blind.”

The Defence Minister was thus moved furrow his brow and sermonize. “The entire mission set of the Canadian Forces is premised on our ability to look out into the future, to see what we will need for domestic operations, of course, here at home, in North America, what missions might exist,” he proclaimed. “No one would have anticipated the mission over Libya. No one could have said with certainty we would be in Kosovo. The honourable member may be Nostradamus. He may have some ability to look well into the future and determine with certainty where we will be, but what I can assure the honourable member is that we will be ready. This government intends to give the forces the equipment it will need to be ready.”

The opposition side was unmoved.

“He doesn’t know what for, but he’ll be ready,” Ralph Goodale mocked.