The Liberals have boldly announced that if they win office, they would "put a stop" to plans to issue an untendered, $16-billion contract for a new fleet of fighter jets - but then conceded that after they review the deal, they might decide a sole-source contract is necessary.
The Conservative government is set to announce on Friday plans to buy 65 F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin without letting other fighter manufacturers bid.
The Liberals attacked the decision as secretive, and insisted that if leader Michael Ignatieff becomes prime minister, they would put the fighter purchase on hold and review all of the military's equipment needs.
New fighter jets will probably be necessary after 2017, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said, but there's enough time to make the right decision, and only competitive bids ensure the best value.
"If the Conservatives won't put a stop to this contract, a future Liberal government will," Mr. Garneau said.
But the party clarified later that this doesn't necessarily mean that a Liberal government wouldn't eventually do the same thing: issue a big contract to Lockheed Martin without asking competitors to bid.
Mr. Garneau said that's highly unlikely, because a sole-source contract is justified only when no other supplier can offer what the military needs, and other companies manufacture fighters. But he said the Liberals don't have enough information to rule out the possibility that a sole-sourced contract is necessary.
In the meantime, the Liberals say Conservative cabinet ministers must appear before the Commons defence committee to explain why they have to buy the Lockheed Martin fighters without a competition.
"We want the defence committee back to say, why do you need this fighter?" Mr. Ignatieff told reporters in Pickering, Ont., at a stop on his cross-Canada summer tour. "Why didn't you open this to competitive bidding and demonstrate that this thing is needed?"
The Conservatives have settled on the non-competitive process because of what the choice of fighter means for Canada's place as a U.S. ally, rather than for cost, cabinet documents obtained last month by The Globe and Mail indicate.
The F-35s are the product of the Joint Strike Fighter program launched in the 1990s by the United States and eight other nations, including Canada; the Liberal government of the day signed on to the development program, but didn't commit to buying the planes. Canada's CF-18 fighters will be retired between 2017 and 2020.
The documents show government officials are aware that requiring bids could lead rival jet-makers to lower prices, but that choosing another plane would lead Canada from the path its major allies will follow. "Competitive process would send signal to US/partners that we are not fully committed to JSF," the documents state.
Canada's 65 fighters will come at the end of a long production run - the United States plans to buy 2,400, and countries such as Britain and Australia will also buy some.
Mr. Garneau, a former navy engineer and astronaut, said Canada has other allies besides the United States, in NATO for example, and the need for a fleet that fits with U.S. plans should not be overstated.