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Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks at a model of a fighter-jet during a visit to the Heroux-Devtek plant near Montreal on Jan. 14, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks at a model of a fighter-jet during a visit to the Heroux-Devtek plant near Montreal on Jan. 14, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Harper defends fighter deal in campaign-style attack on Liberals Add to ...

Set in the careful stagecraft of a rousing election campaign stop, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sharpened his partisan defence of the F-35 fighter deal Friday, blasting Liberals for wanting to bail out on another vital aircraft purchase.

At one stop at an airplane parts factory, Mr. Harper accused Liberals of putting in peril thousands of jobs the new fighter jet will bring to factories in the Montreal region. Later, at Bell Helicopter in Mirabel, he announced a contract extension - $640-million, 10 years - for Griffon helicopter maintenance, to the cheers of hundreds of Bell employees - all while hammering home how the Liberals under Jean Chrétien cancelled a deal to buy military helicopters in 1993.

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The decision 18 years ago "hurt the military, hurt the industry, and ultimately cost the taxpayer more" and is a direct parallel with current Liberal threats to cancel the F-35, Mr. Harper said.

The Liberals shot back by accusing Mr. Harper of hypocrisy, saying the former Reform MP was also in favour in the 1990s of cancelling the maritime helicopter contract that had been signed by the Conservative government.

At his two stops Friday, Mr. Harper was surrounded by crowds of applauding aerospace workers, including many who were eager to shake his hand. He asked those workers to join him in a campaign to dissuade the opposition parties - particularly Michael Ignatieff's Liberals - from defeating the deal.

The Prime Minister later denied he was engaged in early electioneering, but his entreaty to the workers sounded much like a call to rally against Liberal MPs.

"I need your help making MPs from this region and elsewhere in Canada listen to reason," Mr. Harper told workers at Héroux-Devtec, which is manufacturing door and wing parts for the F-35. "Honestly, I can't understand how a Liberal MP from the Montreal region would want to cancel this contract. It's unbelievable."

While the final contract has yet to be signed, the Conservatives have committed to spending $16-billion for the purchase and maintenance of 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s.

Sitting in Montreal's West Island, the Héroux-Devtec factory is wedged between an industrial area including Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport and the residential Lac St. Louis riding, where former football player and future star Conservative candidate Larry Smith will run in the next election.

Many of the aerospace workers live in the riding, which has been a Liberal stronghold for years but may be the main Conservative hope for piercing the region for the first time in decades.

Mr. Harper's prediction of $12-billion in economic spinoffs for Canada, much of it in the Montreal region, is a fantasy, the Liberals say.

In an interview, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said his party's plan on fighter jets would end up saving billions of dollars in taxpayers funds by opening up the purchase to a full competition. He said a Liberal government would call for the winning manufacturer to guarantee that 100 per cent of the value of the aircraft would be reinvested in Canada, while the current deal for F-35s does not include traditional regional benefits.

"We know we can get a better deal for Canadians, with guaranteed offsets," Mr. Garneau said.

The former astronaut added that the Liberal plan would be less risky than the current purchase of F-35s, which are still under development, with slippage in the delivery schedule and regular increases in cost.

Mr. Garneau said his party would maximize the maintenance work conducted in Canada, and likely seek a fighter jet with twin engines instead of the one-engine F-35 to conduct patrols in isolated regions of the North.

"All things being equal," he said, "two engines are better than one."

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