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Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on May 11, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on May 11, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

MacKay knew bill for Libya mission was double estimate, general says Add to ...

Defence Minister Peter MacKay knew the real cost of the Canadian Forces mission in Libya was expected to be twice as much as the figure he gave the public last fall, a top officer says.

As the Libya mission drew to a close last October, the Defence Minister stated publicly his latest figures pegged the cost at less than $50 million – but a senior general said Friday that Mr. MacKay knew at the time the department’s estimate was that the total cost would eventually hit $106-million.

In the end, the actual cost of the mission, $103 million, was almost bang on that internal estimate.

The military sent out a senior officer, Major-General Jonathan Vance, to defend the $50-million figure Mr. MacKay provided in October, saying those were the to-date costs compiled at the time, with bills still coming in.

But Maj.-Gen. Vance later conceded that even then, the military expected the cost to rise to twice as much, $106-million, when all bills were counted. And Mr. MacKay knew it, too.

“He knew the estimates, for sure. In fact, he presents the estimates to cabinet, so yes,” Maj.-Gen. Vance said, “he would have know what the estimated cost would have been, for sure.”

For Mr. MacKay, whose department is accused by the Auditor-General and opposition parties of low-balling cost estimates for the F-35 fighter jet, the new dispute over the cost of the Libya mission is a significant political headache.

“Why isn’t the minister capable of being honest when it’s time to provide real costs?” NDP MP Christine Moore said in the House of Commons, before Maj.-Gen. Vance provided his briefing.

In response, Mr. MacKay maintained that such tallies can change because of extensions to the mission and the costs of bringing equipment and troops home.

But in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House on Oct. 28 – three days before the end of the mission – Mr. MacKay was asked how much the Libya mission cost. He never mentioned the much higher estimate he already had in hand. In fact, he referred to an older estimate of $60-million and made it seem like the actual costs of the campaign were coming in below that projection.

“The initial projections, as you know, going back six months or more, have us in the range of about $60-million,” he said. “As of Oct. 13, the figures that I’ve received have us well below that, somewhere under $50-million. And that’s the all-up costs, of the equipment that we had in the theatre, the transportation to get there, those that have been carrying out this critical mission.”

Mr. MacKay did say he was providing that $50-million number with the “proviso” there could be more costs that came in as the mission was wrapped up and troops and equipment were brought home. But he didn’t mention the estimate.

The affair has raised new questions about whether the military, and the Conservative government, deliberately low-ball costs rather than providing the public their best estimate of the full bill.

Maj.-Gen. Vance, however, stressed that the military never low-balled costs and in fact got its internal estimate almost spot-on. He defended Mr. MacKay’s figure “as to what the cost of the mission was, on that date, that particular point in time, with the bills that had come in to that point.”

The new $103-million cost figure for the Libya mission was released this week in the Defence Department’s report on plans on priorities, an annual document issued along with the department’s spending estimates.

Maj.-Gen. Vance’s briefing Friday appeared to be designed to stress to journalists that the real costs of the mission are the incremental costs of $103-million, rather than a separate “full-cost” figure of $348 million, which includes items like salaries that would have been spent whether the Canadian Forces conducted the Libya mission or not.

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