The Commons: The case of the $10-billion typo

How does someone type 'definitions' instead of 'options analysis,' asked Megan Leslie

The Scene. Megan Leslie sought clarity. The government side, she explained, had retroactively changed a report to Parliament. In the first version of the report, the cabinet had approved the purchase of the F-35. In the second version, the cabinet had not approved the purchase of the F-35. What, she essentially asked, gives?

In response, the Prime Minister offered clarity. Or at least the word “clear.” “Mr. Speaker, again, the government has not signed a contract for the purchase of these aircraft,” he said. “We have been clear,” he added, that the government will wait for the results of further investigation before making a decision.

Ms. Leslie, with the withering tone of her generation, tried to clarify the situation. “Mr. Speaker, the official excuse is it was a typographical error,” she mocked. “The Conservatives want us to believe that someone typed the word ‘definitions’ when they actually meant to type two words ‘options analysis.’ Are there any other typographical errors about the F-35s that the government would like to make the House aware of? For example, when it told Parliament that the plane would cost $14.7 billion but cabinet thought the plane would cost $10 billion more, was that just a typing error?”

“Sarcasm,” moaned a voice from the Conservative side.

The Prime Minister stood and pronounced the matter not just clear, but very clear.

“Mr. Speaker, as I think has been made very clear, $15 billion has in fact been the estimate of the acquisition and maintenance costs,” he ventured. “In any case, the government has been very clear and the facts have been on the record for years that the government has not signed a contract and has not bought any aircraft.”

The facts may have been on the record for years, but the Prime Minister’s clarity on the matter—specifically as it relates to the distinct lack of a contract—is rather newfound.

Seemingly in the interests of keeping things clear, Ms. Leslie’s third question was relatively simple. “Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General showed that the government did not provide information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The Deputy Minister of National Defence said today that he provided the full costing of the F-35s to the Minister of National Defence, the full $25 billion,” she explained. “Why was that information not passed on to Parliament?”

Mr. Harper stammered in response. “Mr. Speaker, the Deputy Minister made it quite clear,” he offered. “If the member were actually reading the Deputy Minister’s testimony she would see the Deputy Minister made clear the information has been presented in the way that it has always been presented over many years, many decades, long before this government came to office.”

All of which may be true, even if the information in question was not presented in accordance with Treasury Board guidelines or Defence Department promises. But never mind that because in the next sentence the Prime Minister conceded the numbers were in question. “The more important point in the Auditor General’s report is that the Auditor General has questioned the reliability of some of these numbers,” he clarified. “That is why the government has committed to re-examining this matter before proceeding.”

Soon thereafter it was Christine Moore’s turn to yell at the Defence Minister. “Mr. Speaker, it is time to end the reign of lies and confusion in the case of F-35,” the New Democrat charged. “What is the overall cost of the F-35?”

Peter MacKay was profoundly saddened. It was the opposition, he said, who was causing confusion. The government, on the other hand, has been “very clear.”

Another round for Ms. Moore and then two rounds for her colleague, Matthew Kellway. Finally, to the latter, Mr. MacKay patronized. “Mr. Speaker,” the Defence Minister sighed, standing up straight and tall and folding his hands in front of him, “what I do know is that the No Defence Party’s Mini Me is doing his best to confuse Canadians on this file.”

And with that odd quip committed to the record, there were platitudes. “What we know is that the national defence department is moving toward an important procurement to see that we have CF-18 fighter aircraft replaced in the coming years. We have a more comprehensive process in place now in response to the Auditor General,” Mr. MacKay assured. “We have responded in a way that will give greater transparency, greater information to Parliament and the public. There has been no money spent and no contract signed. Canada’s interests are protected and so are the interests of the Canadian Forces.”

So no more typos then?

The Stats. Military procurement, 10 questions. Government spending and the environment, four questions. The Canadian Forces, freedom of the press, bilingualism and the Canada Revenue Agency, three questions each. SNC-Lavalin, two questions each. Aboriginal affairs, ethics, the seal hunt, food safety, Saudi Arabia, science and banks, one question each.

Peter MacKay, seven responses. Stephen Harper and James Moore, six responses. Peter Kent, five responses. Tony Clement, four responses. Deepak Obhrai, two responses. John Duncan, Pierre Poilievre, Keith Ashfield, Joe Oliver, Pierre Lemieux, Susan Truppe, Gary Goodyear, Gail Shea and Jim Flaherty, one response each.