Defence Minister Peter MacKay was under attack in the Monday, trying to avoid fire from opposition demands he justify his government’s multi-billion-dollar purchase of stealth fighter jets and promise military bases across the country won’t be closed.
The NDP and Liberals seized on two media reports in the Commons.
One was critical of the Tory plan to buy 65 new stealth fighters, which apparently will not come with the capability to communicate in the Arctic. The government has built its case for the F-35 jets by arguing the air force needs the best planes available to protect Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.
The other report indicated the government has plans to freeze the size of the military at 68,000 people over the next few years and will as consider selling off property and shutting down bases to save money.
Clearly believing the best defence is a strong offence, Mr. MacKay spent Question Period composing answers aimed at showing up the opposition as anti-military. He accused New Democrats of “denigrating” the Canadian Forces by taking every chance they can to be critical of the government’s efforts at reinvesting in the military.
But he never answered repeated questions as to why the government would buy aircraft that can’t communicate in the North. In addition, the NDP says the F-35s come with a whole host of other problems, including not being able to land on the short Arctic runways.
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, who was filling in for the absent Prime Minister, also dodged questions about the F-35 purchase, telling Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel that the air force will have “the resources it needs to do the best possible job.”
“It will have capabilities that will be state of the art, the only generation fighter of its kind,” he said, not explaining whether or not it will be able to communicate in the North. “We are going to ensure the air force can do the job that the opposition would rather it did not do.”
The Liberals chimed in too, with Bob Rae praising the procurement process used last week in the government’s shipbuilding announcements. “Why not do the same thing for the F-35s?” the Interim Liberal Leader asked.
Mr. Van Loan promptly turned the question back on his rival. “As the member himself should know, there was a competitive process that resulted in the selection of the F-35. If he believes that process is deficient, that is a criticism of his own party that ran that process.”
The Government House Leader added: “Disrupting an already tendered process in mid stream is no way to create confidence among our military, among those who wish to bid for contracts.”
But the opposition wasn’t only focused on the jet purchase. It also had some pointed questions about the potential closing of bases.
NDP defence critic David Christopherson asked: “Is the minister prepared to stand up right now and say that there is absolutely no truth to any of the news articles out there that no bases are going to close, no jobs are going to be lost?”
In response, Mr. MacKay congratulated Mr. Christopherson for asking his first question in his new critic role and accused him of “feigned indignation.” And then he didn’t answer the question.
“The reality is that our government has made historic investments in the Canadian Forces across the board in all four pillars, whether it be in equipment, infrastructure, personnel or the readiness,” Mr. MacKay said. “The only person speculating on the closure of bases, perhaps besides himself, is a Liberal senator.”
The Defence Minister was referring to Senator Colin Kenny, who knows the file inside and out. Mr. Kenny was quoted in The Ottawa Citizen report on military belt-tightening, noting that closing bases and selling surplus property is necessary given the costs of maintaining them.
The NDP didn’t stop there. Four more MPs with bases in their regions – Goose Bay, Valcartier, Bagotville and Esquimalt – pressed the minister for assurances that nothing would change.
“Can the minister tell us today that none of these crucial jobs at CFB Esquimalt will be cut back through some reckless fire sale by the Conservatives?” demanded B.C. New Democrat Randall Garrison.
Replied Mr. MacKay: “I can assure the member opposite and all members here today that the Conservative government will continue to make historic investments in the Canadian Forces.”
And he offered the same non-response to the other three NDP MPs.
Later, outside the House, St. John’s New Democrat Jack Harris said that everyone should be “fearful because everything is up for grabs.”
He said his party was simply asking the government to “tell us what their plan is and not keep everybody in suspense.”