The Scene. Joe Comartin stepped out from behind his desk and presented the question of the moment.
“This morning the Auditor General has said the responsibility for the misleading information that came to this House about the cost lies directly in the cabinet of the Conservative government,” the NDP House leader reported. “I would ask the Prime Minister today, will he stand in this House and tell us whether in fact the cabinet knew what the true costs were going to be for the F-35s?”
The Prime Minister might not have been expected to stand here: Mr. Harper generally declining to answer questions put to him by anyone who isn’t the leader of a recognized party. But here he stood to respond. Not to answer the question at hand, but to respond nonetheless.
“Mr. Speaker, once again, the government has not actually purchased any airplanes. The government plans to do that some years hence, and we will set up an independent committee to supervise that process,” he reassured. “What the Auditor General in fact did say is that in terms of his report the government is taking steps in the right direction. Of course he also confirms that no money has been spent on this acquisition.”
Mr. Comartin was unimpressed. “Mr. Speaker, is that not typical?” he lamented. “Again no responsibility, no true information coming to this House.”
The issue here is a matter of billions.
When the Harper government announced its decision to acquire 65 warplanes of the F-35 variety, the declared price for “aircraft and associated weapons, infrastructure, initial spares, training simulators, contingency funds and project operating costs” was “approximately $9 billion.” That was July 16, 2010. That same day, the tab, factoring in a 20-year timeline, seems to have grown to $16 billion.
Thing is, as of June 2010, the Department of National Defence had an internal estimate for aircraft, moderations, training, weapons, infrastructure, contingency, operating costs and personnel that totalled $25.1 billion over 20 years.
(It is, of course, even more complicated than a matter of different numbers. The Auditor General found that “there is no documented analysis” to explain how the government’s public figures were developed. Furthermore, estimates for purchase price remain “in flux” and “estimates for sustainment costs are not fully developed.” As a result, “there is a risk that these budgets may not be sufficient.” And, for that matter, operating on a 20-year timeline shortchanges the expected lifespan of the planes by at least 16 years.)
“Mr. Speaker, I have a very direct question,” Bob Rae prefaced his first query, apparently feeling such a gambit needed explaining in this place. “When was the Prime Minister first aware that the true cost of the proposed aircraft was $25 billion and not $16 billion? On what date was he aware of this fact?”
The Prime Minister stood, but ignored the question entirely.
“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General has asked the government to have the department officials revise their cost estimates and table those in Parliament. That is precisely what the government is going to do to ensure that the information is accurate,” he offered instead. “We are taking additional steps to independently verify that information. We will be fully transparent with Parliament on that information.”
This quite displeased Mr. Rae. Edging forward in his spot, voice rising, he pumped his left fist and then wagged his right finger and turned a light shade of maroon in the face.
“Mr. Speaker, this is a Prime Minister who, when he was in opposition, used the “accountability” word each and every day. He is now leading a government which is an exercise in organized hypocrisy. The Conservatives are not prepared to accept any consequences. They are not even prepared to tell the truth,” he charged. “Let me ask, one more time, one simple question. When did the Prime Minister become aware, for the first time, that the true cost of the aircraft proposed was $25 billion and not the $16 billion fiction that he has been presenting to the House of Commons for 21 long months? When did he know?”
The Prime Minister stood, but ignored the question entirely.
“Mr. Speaker, I understand the honourable member’s need for attention these days,” he chided.
“You misled Parliament!” came a voice from the Liberal corner.
Switching to French, Mr. Rae gave it one last try. “Mr. Speaker, the person who needs attention is the Prime Minister of Canada, because it is he who refuses to tell the truth before the House of Commons,” the interim Liberal leader shot back. “When was the Prime Minister made aware of the truth?”
The Prime Minister stood, but ignored the question entirely. Verified figures will be presented to Parliament as soon as they are available, he assured.
“Answer the question!” demanded a voice from the Liberal corner.
“Liar, liar!” called another.
Various Conservatives groaned and grumbled at this airing of the l-word.
Now it was Matthew Kellway’s turn. “Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General suggested this morning that Conservative ministers knew they were low-balling the cost estimates in response to the PBO’s report and we want to know when they knew that information, when they knew that the PBO’s estimates were accurate,” the New Democrat MP offered. “It is clear that they knew before the last election and failed to tell Canadians the truth. Did the government know the true cost before the Minister of National Defence did his top-gun photo shoot and announced the government was going to purchase this F-35? When will somebody take responsibility?”
Peter MacKay stood and sought to correct his tormentor. “Mr. Speaker,” the Defence Minister declared, “once again the member opposite is misrepresenting what the Auditor General said.”
But Mr. Kellway had a news bulletin for the minister.
“Mr. Speaker, it is true that the Auditor General was in committee, today but he was also in scrum in front of the media this morning,” he explained. “He was very clear in scrum when he said that the government knew about the $25 billion estimate and that it was low-balling. He meant cabinet ministers.”
The New Democrat wondered if any government minister might stand and take responsibility for “this fiasco.”
Up came Mr. MacKay. “Mr. Speaker, that is what we are doing,” he ventured. “We are accepting the Auditor General’s conclusions. We are accepting the recommendation that he has made. We are going further than that recommendation, putting in place a comprehensive plan to respond to this concern.”
“You misled Parliament!” called Mr. Rae from the far end of the room.
Undeterred, here Mr. MacKay decided to make a joke.
“The member can light his hair on fire, or not,” he mocked, “but he can listen to the Auditor General’s words and be accurate.”
Mr. Kellway, you see, is bald.
The business of the House now pauses for two weeks. If one assumes this won’t all be resolved by then, Mr. MacKay might need to spend the time coming up with more jokes.
The Stats. Military procurement, 15 questions. Ethics, National Defence and gas prices, three questions each. The CBC, government services, affordable housing, Katimavik and firearms, two questions each. Employment, veterans and aboriginal affairs, one question each.
Peter MacKay, eight responses. Stephen Harper, six responses. James Moore, four responses. Rona Ambrose, Peter Van Loan, Ted Menzies and Christian Paradis, three responses each. Kellie Leitch, two responses. Julian Fantino, Eve Adams, John Duncan, Candice Hoeppner and Maxime Bernier, one response each.