Trudeau, Harper, Mulcair battle over F-35 jets

Trudeau promises to cancel big-ticket purchase of the F-35 fighter jet, diverting funds to the Royal Canadian Navy

    OTTAWA – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau fired a political broadside directly at one of his Conservative rival’s most vulnerable flanks Sunday as he promised to scrap the controversial big-ticket purchase of the F-35 fighter jet, sinking the proceeds instead into the Royal Canadian Navy — and shipyards in Halifax and Vancouver.

    At an event in Halifax, where shipbuilding is an economic cornerstone, Trudeau vowed to cancel the Tory plan to buy 65 of the stealth fighters to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet — a deal that experts say would cost taxpayers about $44 billion over the four-decade lifespan of the Lockheed Martin jets.

    “What the Halifax shipyards need, and what the shipyards on the West Coast need, are guarantees that the money is going to flow,” Trudeau told an appreciative crowd of partisan supporters.

    “We are going to build the ships and prevent the kind of delays on hiring and training and investment in infrastructure in order to deliver those ships in a timely way and on budget. That’s what the Liberal party is focused on and that’s what we’re going to deliver.”

    Related longread: The sinking of the Canadian Navy

    Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, speaking at an event in Windsor, Ont., seized on Trudeau’s plan as evidence the Liberals aren’t serious about keeping Canadians safe.

    Harper said the Royal Canadian Air Force needs the jet and what it’s capable of doing in order to replace the CF-18s that are currently taking part in Canada’s air operations over Iraq and Syria as part of an international coalition helping to fight the militant members of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

    “We, along with our allies, have been using this exact capacity with our current CF-18s in various parts of the world, including right now in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Harper said.

    “Let me be clear: we are not going to abandon our fight against ISIS, not going to abandon our allies, not going to abandon people in the region, not going to abandon that kind of capacity in our Air Force and we are not going to abandon our domestic aerospace industry.”

    The high-tech stealth jets were a frequent talking point during the 2011 campaign. Since then, however, the federal auditor general has pilloried the government for being less than forthright in telling Canadians the true cost of procurement, and for not doing enough homework before opting for the F-35.

    The purchase of the jet was then put on hold while officials conducted additional studies and analyses, while the life of the CF-18s was extended to 2025.

    NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called the purchase a “completely failed process” that showed a need for a new bidding process. He didn’t rule out purchasing the F-35.

    “An NDP government would start the process over, make sure we define what we need for our military, and then we go to the lowest conforming bidder that has the product that meets our needs,” Mulcair said.

    Related: Our primer on defence spending, from our explainers on #elxn42’s big issues

    Talk on the campaign trail Sunday also turned to a more urgent issue: what to do about the relentless waves of Syrian refugees currently flooding Europe’s besieged borders — a file both Trudeau and Mulcair say has been badly bungled by the Tories.

    Mulcair said the country needed a prime minister “who understands the urgency to act as crises unfold, not one who keeps offering up excuses for his inaction.”

    On Saturday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Syrians fleeing the conflict in the region would be presumed to be convention refugees under the United Nations Refugee Agency in order to streamline their applications — a two-year, $25-million commitment aimed at slashing wait times from three years to 15 months.

    “Our policy here has been more refugees, a faster process, and more financial support for the region all done with careful selection of the refugees and screening,” Harper said Sunday before being drowned out by partisan applause.

    “The other guys in response, chasing headlines over the past month, would have made the kinds of decisions that other countries are now regretting. They would have acted in ways that were reckless and irresponsible.

    “We have been generous and we have been responsible.”

    Sunday’s renewed focus on defence, security and foreign affairs came just over a week before the three leaders gather for a federal leaders’ debate on that very topic — a debate to which Green party Leader Elizabeth May has not been invited, much to her chagrin.

    So the Greens took a different tack Sunday, borrowing a page from the Eliot Ness playbook.

    The party is asking the Canada Revenue Agency to look into whether the debate’s sponsor, the charitable organization known as the Aurea Foundation, is violating the Income Tax Act by not allowing May to take part. The law says it’s illegal for a charity to directly or indirectly support or oppose a political party.