Michael Ignatieff's Liberals are not letting up on their fight against the $16-billion purchase of 65 next-generation stealth fighter jets, arguing Stephen Harper's Tories want a "free pass on the largest sole-source contract in Canadian history."
"The Auditor-General herself has raised red flags about this deal," a senior Ignatieff official told The Globe Monday. "Before they give out a blank cheque on these planes, Canadians expect the Conservatives to answer basic questions about whether these are the right planes, at the best price, and at the right time when we're in a $56-billion deficit. ... They're costing Canadians billions more by not having an open competition."
The official's comments come after a weekend in which the Conservatives continued to make the case for the purchase - at the expense of the Liberals. Indeed, the Prime Minister's Office threw everything it had at them, including using the thwarted terrorist attack in the United States as another reason for the new jets.
"Whether it is the CF-18s or the F-35s, Canada's air force needs the right equipment to protect Canadian airspace," Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's director of communications, said in an email Friday night. "Michael Ignatieff's Liberals and their coalition partners would rather use kites to defend Canada than fighter jets."
Canadian fighter jets had escorted one of the cargo planes that contained a suspicious package through Canadian airspace to New York's JFK Airport. The Tories also seized on the fact that a senior senator, Colin Kenny, was not onside with the Liberal Leader's call last week to cancel the deal.
Mr. Ignatieff said a Liberal government would cancel the jet-fighter "accord." He cautioned that while the Liberals wanted new jets for Canada's military, the bidding process on their procurement needed to be open.
The Tories wasted no time in sending out one of their trademark "Alerte-Info-Alert" memos, under the headline "Ignatieff's Opportunism on F35s Criticized by Caucus Colleague," to MPs and supporters playing up Mr. Kenny's position.
The Liberal senator told National Post columnist Don Martin: "I would be delighted to take a shot at the Conservatives for their apparent intention to go sole-source on this whopper of a contract, but I can't."
Given the way the jet deal has been structured - other countries are also involved - he dismissed Mr. Ignatieff's contention that putting the deal to tender would mean a lower price for Canadians. The senator, who served as chairman of the defence committee for a number of years, shares Conservative concerns that crucial aerospace jobs would be in jeopardy if the deal were cancelled.
"Michael Ignatieff is putting his own narrow partisan interests ahead of the interests of Canadian aerospace workers and their families and the needs of our Canadian Forces," the Tory memo says. "When the economic recovery is still fragile, the last thing the aerospace workers and their families need is Michael Ignatieff threatening their jobs."
The Ignatieff official wanted to be clear, however, that the Liberals are still completely committed to the 2006 memorandum of understanding that gives "Canadian aerospace access to industrial contracts related to the F-35s but does not obligate Canada to specifically purchase the planes."