The Liberal Party on Tuesday served notice at the Commons Public Accounts committee that it will seek “immediate” public hearings into Mr. Ferguson’s report that National Defence kept risings costs a secret—failing to publicly disclose in March, 2011, that it had expected for a year that the total cost of buying, maintaining and operating the fleet of 65 stealth fighters would be a minimum of $25-billion over 20 years instead of just over $14-billion it was claiming publicly.
At the time, as the opposition parties were poised to defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) minority government over a scheduled budget and force a general election, National Defence told Parliament that the trouble-plagued stealth jets would cost only $14.7-billion for acquisition and ongoing maintenance and operations, Mr. Ferguson's report states.
NDP MP Malcolm Allen (Welland, Ont.) told The Hill Times on Tuesday New Democrats on the Public Accounts Committee are prepared to support a Liberal motion calling for immediate hearings into the report’s findings. The opposition is ready to go “all the way up” to Mr. Harper if necessary to find out what happened, he said.
The motion Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal MP Gerry Byrne (Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, Nfld.) presented to the committee shortly after Mr. Ferguson tabled his report in Parliament calls for testimony from Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, chief of air staff at National Defence; Dan Ross, the department’s deputy minister for materiel; two F-35 project managers; four senior managers and deputy ministers from Industry Canada and Public Works and Government Services Canada; as well as Mr. Ferguson and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.
“Canadians expect us to get to the bottom of this,” Mr. Allen told The Hill Times. “The auditor general clearly has said that this program has been mismanaged and indeed Parliament and Canadians have been misled.”
Mr. Allen said Canadians want to find out the truth of what happened with the project. “We need to find out by whom, so that we can hold folks accountable, right all the way up from whoever happens to be in DND all the way up to the minister, and indeed the prime minister if he is culpable as well, all the way through,” he said. “We need that opportunity and we’re going to take that opportunity to make sure that Canadians get the absolute truth.”
The opposition-chaired Public Accounts Committee will be unable to deal with Mr. Byrne’s motion on the F-35 project until after Parliament resumes on Monday, April 23, following a two-week spring recess. Mr. Ferguson, however, is scheduled to appear at the committee on Thursday morning to answer questions about his report in a broader vein, dealing in an initial way with his scathing comments about the F-35 project as well as other areas, including inadequate health monitoring over imports and inadequate monitoring over civil aviation safety.
The auditor general’s criticism of management over the F-35 project was sweeping. He said National Defence had essentially committed itself to the plan by the end of 2006, the year the Conservative government was first elected, a full four years before Mr. Harper and his Cabinet made a formal decision to procure the 65 Lockheed Martin jets to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighter jets. By that time, apparently with the approval of successive defence ministers including Defence Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) and perhaps all of cabinet, National Defence had already selected the F-35 as its favourite among four new fighter jet options, signed three memoranda of understandings on the project with the United States and other countries, negotiated terms for industrial participation and committed $710-million to the F-35 purchase.
The Auditor General’s report states that in the lead-up to the July, 2010, government decision to purchase 65 F-35s: “Key decisions were made without required approvals or supporting documentation.”
The report says there was no documentation to support a 2008 National Defence decision rejecting three other contender aircraft because, although all three aircraft met the “high-level mandatory capabilities” of the fighter jet Canada required, the F-35 offered the “best value” because it provided “exceptional capability at the lowest cost and unparalleled benefits for the Canadian aerospace industry.”
The auditor general's report states that “the conclusions were presented to senior decision makers. There was no documentation supporting the analysis and conclusions.”
Although Canada signed on to the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter program to develop a new generation fighter jet in 1997, none of the three agreements it has signed as part of the development consortium require it to purchase the F-35, although a purchase contract was necessary for Canadian firms to take part in subsequent development and maintenance opportunities.
But when it came time to make the decision to buy the aircraft, over and above taking part in its development, “National Defence did not fully inform decision makers of the implications of participation in the JSF program for the acquisition process. In some cases, documented analysis did not exist to support decisions.”
Mr. Harper and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) have both recently emphasized that Canada has not yet signed a contract to purchase the aircraft, although for the past two years the government has harshly attacked the opposition parties for insisting on holding competitive tenders to select new fighter jets.
At a news conference after he tabled his report in Parliament, Mr. Ferguson said National Defence had the opportunity to disclose the true expected cost of the F-35 in 2011, when it claimed in a response to a critical report from Mr. Page that acquisition and lifelong maintenance would cost only $14.7-billion.
The auditor general stated that as the F-35 project experience cost increases, delays and technological difficulties “in briefing materials from 2006 through 2010 that we have reviewed, neither the Minister (of defence) nor decision makers in National Defence and central agencies were kept informed of these problems and the associated risks of relying on the F-35 to replace CF-18.”
The government on Tuesday announced it was freezing the “spending envelope” for the project and establishing a new secretariat with personnel from Public Works and Government Services Canada to manage the project, along with a new review of the F-35 program by the secretariat that supports the Treasury Board committee of Cabinet. The new Public Works secretariat for the F-35 will report to Parliament.
"The government has not yet purchased this airplane. It has not yet signed a contract," Mr. Harper said during Question Period in response to a question from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.). "The Auditor General has identified a need for greater independence and supervision over some of the activities of the Department of National Defence in this regard. The government will put that supervision in place before we proceed."
Opposition MPs said the fact that the new secretariat is titled the F-35 Secretariat itself suggests the government is not sincere when it also says it will continue to scout out other options to the F-35.
Mr. Allen and Mr. Byrne told The Hill Times they anticipate the government will not have an appetite for rejecting a Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the F-35, although they both pointed out the government majority on the panel last fall rejected opposition attempts to have the auditor general appear for special hearings into $50-million worth of federal contracts that went to Treasury Board President Tony Clement's (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) riding for the 2010 G8 summit.
“In terms of my expectations of the Conservatives accepting my motion, I can only be hopeful they will and hopeful that whatever amount of contrition they may have about their F-35 boondoggle will translate into action on their part to own up to their mistakes,” Mr. Byrne said. “Given the gravity of what they have done—deceiving Parliament once again at a potential cost to taxpayers this time of well over $25-billion—they will not only want to appear to be accountable for their decisions, they will be accountable for their decisions."
Mr. Fantino said during QP that the government accepts Mr. Ferguson's conclusions and will implement the recommendations. "The Government of Canada has taken action today to ensure that due diligence, oversight and transparency are firmly embedded in the process to replace Canada's aging fighter jets. That is why we have frozen funding for the acquisition and are establishing a separate F-35 secretariat outside of National Defence to lead this project moving forward," he said.
Source: hill times
Author: Tim Naumetz