The Commons: Stephen Harper's Royal Canadian Air Farce

Suddenly, the F-35 purchase no longer seems to be about 'lives' and 'jobs'

The Scene. “They knew it.”

What did they know? They knew the cost of purchasing the F-35 would be higher than they had let on. This much, Thomas Mulcair explained, had now been proven by the Auditor General.

“Why,” the leader of the opposition thus asked, “did the Conservatives deliberately gave false information to Parliament and Canadians?”

The Prime Minister stood here, shrugged and dismissed it all. “Mr. Speaker, I do not accept these conclusions of the opposition leader,” Mr. Harper said, without elaborating. The Auditor General had, Mr. Harper explained, made “certain findings” and “identified the need for greater supervision.” The government accepted this much.

Switching to English, Mr. Mulcair was sharp and stinging in response.

“Mr. Speaker, this is a question of ethics,” he posited.

For the Prime Minister’s benefit, he succinctly offered his own review of chapter two of the Auditor General’s spring report.

“The Auditor General has concluded that the Conservatives knew their figures were misleading but they gave them to Parliament anyway. The Auditor General’s report on the F-35 is a litany of poor public administration, bad decision-making and lack of accountability by Conservative ministers.”

Now then, the question. “The key question to the Prime Minister is: How could he allow Parliament to be intentionally misled on the F-35s? Either he knew, and it is unconscionable, or he did not know and it is incompetence.”

Mr. Mulcair turned and stared directly at Mr. Harper. “Which is it?” he demanded.

Once more, Mr. Harper claimed some mistake. “Mr. Speaker,” he begged, “that is a misconception of what the Auditor General actually said.”

Of Parliament and parliamentarians, the Auditor General makes several references.

“In presenting costs to government decision makers and to Parliament, National Defence estimated life-cycle costs over 20 years,” he explains. “This practice understates operating, personnel, and sustainment costs, as well as some capital costs, because the time period is shorter than the aircraft’s estimated life expectancy.”

“Also, we observed that National Defence told parliamentarians that cost data provided by US authorities had been validated by US experts and partner countries, which was not accurate at the time,” he adds. “At the time of its response, National Defence knew the costs were likely to increase but did not so inform parliamentarians.”

Mr. Harper addressed none of this. Instead he offered two sentences that contradict much of what his government has been saying these last two years.

“I remind the leader of the opposition that the government has not yet purchased this airplane,” the Prime Minister declared. “It has not yet signed a contract.”

This has always been something of  a farce. Not just because the Conservatives once said there was indeed a “contract” that guaranteed 65 warplanes at a price of no more than $9 billion. But because of all the ways the Prime Minister and his ministers sought to justify this demonstrably flimsy premise.

Not purchasing the F-35 presented a “real danger” that the country would be unable to defend our airspace and our sovereignty. We would be left susceptible to terrorist bombings and a Russian invasion. This was about “lives” and “jobs.” It was “disappointing” and “sad” and “unbelievable” that anyone would even think of doing otherwise. This went beyond politics. To not purchase the F-35, would leave our air force with an “operational gap,” isolate ourselves from our international allies and fail to sufficiently support the troops. Buying the F-35 was the “only option.” This was a “crusade.”

“We’re not backing down,” Julian Fantino declared last November.

“We have not as yet discounted the possibility, of course, [of] backing out of the program,” Mr. Fantino clarified last month.

So apparently the Harper government has decided that it fears the Auditor General slightly more than it fears Vladimir Putin. And so now there is a “secretariat” and a “deputy ministers’ committee” and a “seven-point plan.” None of which seems likely to satisfy the opposition side.

“Mr. Speaker, if one accepts the recommendations, who will be held responsible for this fiasco?” Christine Moore loudly demanded after the Prime Minister had returned to his seat. The government side audibly mocked her enthusiasm.

Ms. Moore demanded to know what the former minister of public works, Christian Paradis, had done to avoid this mess. Mr. Paradis remained in his seat. Mr. Fantino stood and vowed that the government would be “refining” its “cost estimates.”

Ralph Goodale stood and squared up to the matter. “The government cannot dodge responsibility,” he said. “It is not credible. It is simply not true for Conservatives to say that they did not know until today. They were told by the Liberal opposition 21 months ago.”

In his seat, the Prime Minister noticeably chuckled at this.

Marc Garneau rose and told Mr. Harper to seek Peter MacKay’s resignation. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Defence Minister stood. Instead, both Mr. Fantino and Rona Ambrose stood, each offering answers until Mr. Fantino was motioned to sit down. ” Mr. Speaker, this morning the Auditor General was very clear. He said that the Department of National Defence needs to refine its cost estimates and it needs to be more transparent,” Ms. Ambrose recounted. “Our government’s response is also very clear. We will ensure that the Department of National Defence does refine its cost estimates.”

The NDP’s Matthew Kellway zeroed in on Mr. Fantino, suggesting he had misled Canadians and wondering if he might thus apologize. “Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Fantino protested. “I certainly do not accept the premise.”

Ms. Ambrose eventually came to carry the duty of responding. And so far as she was concerned, the Auditor General had really only made one recommendation. “His one recommendation was that the Department of National Defence continue to refine its cost estimates for the F-35 and that they be more transparent,” she said. “We accept that. We will not purchase any new aircraft until the Department of National Defence has met that recommendation.”

Except, of course, that one anonymous government official has already indicated, with fitting metaphoric awkwardness, that “the F-35 train is still on the track.”

The farce is strong in this one.

The Stats. Military procurement, 14 questions. The budget, Old Age Security, infrastructure and Rights & Democracy, three questions each. Air safety, Lebanon and firearms, two questions each. Employment, crime, veterans, Spain, arts funding and food safety, one question each.

Julian Fantino, Rona Ambrose and Denis Lebel, six answers each. Stephen Harper, John Baird and Diane Ablonczy, three answers each. Jim Flaherty, Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier, two answers each. Candice Hoeppner, Peter Van Loan, Eva Adams, James Moore and Gerry Ritz, one answer each.