Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The F-35 Scandal

It is safe to say that the Harper government is facing its biggest political crisis since 2006. I think it is fair to characterize the revelations about the problems surrounding the procurement of the F-35 fighter aircraft as a scandal.

Canada’s military is currently equipped with F-18s. They have come to the end of their service life, and must be replaced. Therefore the government began the process back a number of years, 2009 I believe, to purchase a fleet of F-35s. The government informed Parliament that the cost of the jets would be about $15 billion. Scott Brison (Liberal – King-Hants, NS) raised questions in the finance committee in 2010 in regards to a breakdown of the cost. The government restated the price despite mounting evidence that the quoted price was grossly inaccurate. The figures quoted by the Canadian government and her ministers began to show a growing gap between those provided by the American Pentagon.  

Skip to the present. Last week the Auditor-General, Michael Ferguson, released a report to the public stating that the public and parliament had been misled about the true cost of the F-35s. The Conservative government was immediately forced on to the defensive. What confuses the process is that the responsibility for the F-35 procurement program has shifted into a few different ministers’ hands. Defence Minister Peter McKay (Conservative – Central Nova, NS) originally had responsibility until passing it off to junior minister Julian Fantino (Conservative – Vaughan, ON). Fantino has awkwardly defended the purchase in the house in the weeks leading up to the A-G’s report. Now the file has been handed off to Rona Ambrose (Conservative – Edmonton-Spruce Grove, AB), the Minister of Public Works. So, who is responsible for these obvious mistakes

Andrew Coyne, columnist with the National Post, has assessed the number for himself. He is concerned that the $25-30 billion price tag is inaccurate. The true cost of the F-35s may exceed $40 billion. This is not a minor issue. The party slashing government programs and civil service positions cannot pose as the party of fiscal conservatism while a major procurement deal spirals out of control with no cabinet official truly bearing responsibility.

The government’s explanations are simply not satisfactory. Accusing the Auditor-General of accounting errors is laughable in the face of it. In any sensible government at least a minister responsible would resign. In any sensible caucus backbenchers would begin decrying this waste of federal tax dollars and the lack of transparency of the government. How many fiscal conservatives want to go back to their ridings in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario and explain to their constituents a “10 billion dollar accounting error.” Feeling political and media pressure the Prime Minister would be forced to shift policies.

This is not a sensible world, tragically.

Prime Minister Harper cannot cast out Peter McKay. He carries too much political weight as the symbolic other half of the party. Remember he was the leader of the Progressive Conservatives when they merged with the Canadian Alliance. McKay may be asked quietly to leave, but not now, maybe in a year or two, I imagine. The backbench will hold their tongue as they always do, cowed as they are, in all parties.

There is something important to remember that Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen reminded his followers of on Twitter.  The 2011 Federal election was called due to a contempt of Parliament decision. That decision was in response to the government refusing to provide cost estimates and other information in relation to legislation, including the F-35s. The election was called the Canadian public in their righteous anger returned Stephen Harper’s government with a majority... Now we have a scandal on our hands that was, in many ways, foreseen. The Conservative Party misled the public and won an election on the back of it, in some part.

Here’s a link to Mr. Gardner on CTV’s Question Period, which I think quite succinctly summarizes the nature of this scandal. Dan Gardner also provides great insight here on why transparency is the key togood government.

What bothers me is this will likely boil down into a political/partisan issue. By 2015 this will likely be a distant memory, and the parties will circle the wagons and the real scandal will be lost. I might be wrong though, but before the scandal really broke the NDP and Conservatives were tied in thepolls

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