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Lockheed F - 35 AF1 joint strike fighter (Tom Reynolds)
Lockheed F - 35 AF1 joint strike fighter (Tom Reynolds)

Bruce Anderson: The zombie F-35 jets will only keep gnawing at Conservatives Add to ...

If you think you’re sick of hearing about the F-35, imagine how the average Conservative caucus member must feel. They’ve had to carry around this mess of a public policy, this comprehensive collapse of judgment or honesty at National Defense, for what must seem like forever.

Now, the plane is the policy equivalent of a zombie “biter” from the Walking Dead. It has the potential to inflict even more grave wounds on the Conservatives. Nothing good can come from pretending otherwise and letting it wander around the political landscape for much longer.

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Most Conservative MPs, I’m sure, have long since resigned themselves to the fact that they will climb down from the purchase of this aircraft, and have been hoping it happens sooner, rather than later, so they can get it behind them.

It now appears that the Christmas break will be used to try to take the sting out of this disaster – to hope that voters are sufficiently distracted by thoughts of good will and ultimately relieved that they will not be on the hook to buy a plane for which the price keeps rising as the firm orders keep falling.

To say the Conservatives face a tough choice now is inaccurate, because it presumes that going ahead with the F-35 is a viable political option. Doing so would only put their scarred reputation for fiscal management in even greater jeopardy.

The mere fact that this is a “conservative” branded party doesn’t mean that voters will always assume it will be careful with their money. When Jean Chretien won in 1993, he owed part of his success to the fact that voters had concluded that the Progressive Conservatives had lost the ability or will to control spending.

As a natural fiscal hawk, Stephen Harper will feel acutely uncomfortable with the fact that on his watch, deficits have hit record highs, and more than $100-billion has been added to the country’s debt. Having had to push back his timetable to a balanced budget on more than one occasion, is there any chance that he wants to press his luck with Canadians and make the case that a plane he said would cost $16-billion is still a good buy at north of $30-billion?

The Conservatives face a number of risks on this issue, not all of which are equally serious. One risk is that they look like incompetents at procurement. On this point, they have made a solid choice in handing the file to Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, whose willingness to say “reset” and “seven-point plan” never flags, and who adds no unnecessary political topspin as she answers question after question. She is a case study in how a minister should handle a badly messed up file.

The second risk is that they look like they have no idea how to properly equip the military, having invested so much effort arguing for the F-35. This is an issue that might concern their base, but not too many others. A bigger problem will be if voters start to become engaged in the question of whether a stealth fighter is even needed, given the nature of modern conflicts. What choice the Conservatives make next will simply unleash the next wave of opposition attack: there is no prospect of the Conservatives playing offence on this issue.

But the biggest risk, by far, is whether the Conservatives will lose public trust when it comes to being honest and careful with money. They have grossly misunderstood the cost of this plane, or misrepresented it to voters, or both.

They can ill afford this problem, as their credentials for prudence and transparency have been shredding for some time. They are in a long-running, bitter battle with the Parliamentary Budget Officer, a fight that leaves the impression they are anxious to hide something. They cut the GST, ramped up spending, exploded the deficit, and now find themselves talking about the need for Canadians to put off retirement for a couple of years. They have announced they will stop setting fiscal targets, for an undetermined period of time. They are making Bob Rae and Tom Mulcair look like Ross Perot. More than any other risk, this is the one Conservative strategists can ill afford to ignore.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and Senior Adviser with NATIONAL Public Relations.

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