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Naval flight students inspect a U.S. Marine F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet during a roll-out ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Feb. 24, 2012. (STRINGER/REUTERS)
Naval flight students inspect a U.S. Marine F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet during a roll-out ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Feb. 24, 2012. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

Conservatives block debate over who will testify in F-35 investigation Add to ...

Conservative MPs have rejected a public debate about which bureaucrats and military officers will appear in front of parliamentarians to discuss the F-35 controversy, including allegations that some of them misled cabinet ministers and Canadians.

The House of Commons is closed for a two-week break, but the opposition convened an emergency meeting of the public accounts committee of the House on Thursday to launch its investigation into the planned purchase of new fighter jets.

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All MPs agreed to hear from Michael Ferguson, the Auditor-General whose report earlier this month ignited the controversy over the cost of the planned military purchase and the lack of clear information provided to Canadians.

The NDP and the Liberal Party then tried to get an agreement on other witnesses, including Canadian Forces officers and bureaucrats who were directly involved in the file.

However, Conservative MPs used their majority on the committee to avoid any discussion of specific witnesses. The Conservatives decided to debate the list next Tuesday and to launch hearings on Thursday.

The opposition speculated the Conservative MPs will hold the planning meeting behind closed doors to protect federal officials who provided misinformation on the $25-billion project.

“They are going to try to gloss over the issues of the F-35 acquisition as best they possibly can,” said Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, who organized the emergency meeting. “They will do everything to prevent the truth from being heard.”

Andrew Saxton, the Conservative parliamentary secretary to the president of the Treasury Board, refused to comment on opposition concerns about a closed-door hearing next week. The actual testimony will be heard in public.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ferguson took apart the federal government’s process for buying new fighter jets to replace the country’s CF-18s. Mr. Ferguson said National Defence, in a highly unusual move, left the department responsible for such purchases, Public Works Canada, out of the loop for four years.

The Auditor-General also said the government failed to come clean with Canadians on the overall cost of the F-35 program, accusing DND of hiding the estimated cost of $25-billion to buy and operate the fighter jets over 20 years.

Mr. Ferguson has urged the government to go further and release its estimates over 36 years, the estimated lifespan of the F-35s.

While all parties agree on the need to look into the F-35 acquisition process, MPs on the public accounts committee of the House sparred for almost two hours about the list of witnesses.

On April 3, Mr. Byrne was the first member of the committee to propose a motion on the matter, in which he named 10 witnesses.

However, the Conservatives on Thursday would agree only to a motion that did not include any specific individuals, with Conservative MP Bev Shipley explaining “nobody said today was a planning meeting.”

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