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military procurement

A Canadian CF-18 fighter takes off from CFB Trenton in Trenton. Ont. Thursday October 11, 2001.KEVIN FRAYER/The Canadian Press

The Trudeau government will suffer a blow in public opinion if it skips an open competition and hand-picks the new fighter jets that will replace Canada's fleet of CF-18s, a new poll paid for by a manufacturer has found.

The survey, conducted by Nanos Research, found large support for the position that the Liberal Party held in opposition, namely that the Canadian Forces should go to tenders to buy their next fighter jet. However, officials have refused in recent public comments to commit to a competition, insisting instead on the urgent need to fill a "capability gap" between the low number of available CF-18s and the demands of Canada's NATO and NORAD commitments.

The poll of 1,000 Canadians was paid for by Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the stealth F-35, and provided in full to The Globe and Mail.

It found that 82 per cent of respondents would have a "negative or somewhat negative impression" of the government if it sole-sourced the purchase of new jet fighters to a company without competition. On the other hand, 97 per cent of respondents said it would be important or somewhat important for the government to launch an "open and transparent selection process" for the new fighter jets.

Pollster Nik Nanos said the Liberals are reaping what they sowed in opposition, when they lambasted the Conservative government for trying to buy F-35s without going to tenders. In the poll, 59 per cent of respondents said Canada would get poor or very poor "value for tax dollars" if it opted out of a competition.

"The risk for the government is that they engage in a potential sole-source [contract], which isn't what Canadians would expect from a Trudeau government," Mr. Nanos said in an interview. "Polling suggests that if they do sole-source it, there will probably be negative fallout for the Liberals."

Mr. Nanos said he composed all of the questions that were asked between June 24 and 26. The random survey, conducted by telephone and online, offers a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which manufacturers the Super Hornet, have been calling on the government to launch a competition for new military aircraft.

The opposition has accused the Liberal government of trying to rig the process to avoid purchasing F-35s, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some of his key ministers dismissing the aircraft as overly pricey and risky.

When asked for the criteria that should guide the government's choice, respondents to the poll favoured "asserting sovereignty over Canada's North" (67 per cent), opting for the aircraft with the "most advanced technology" (65 per cent) and the one with the "greatest positive impact" on job creation (58 per cent). In contrast, selecting the "lowest cost" aircraft was deemed extremely important by only 20 per cent of respondents.

"What Canadians would like to see is a certain level of self-interest for Canada, which involves asserting sovereignty over Canada's North and creating jobs that are connected to the most advanced technology out there," Mr. Nanos said.

Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have promoted their respective aircraft as being the best suited to patrol in the Arctic, and both argue they would offer the best package of technological benefits for Canadian industry.

Canadians do not seem to share the federal government's sense of urgency on the file, as only 29 per cent of respondents said it was extremely important for the government to choose a new aircraft "as quickly as possible" to replace the CF-18s that were bought in the 1980s.

"People tend to equate making fast decisions with potentially not spending tax dollars wisely," Mr. Nanos said. "The key message is let's have a transparent and open process, make it competitive and take the time for the best solution to come over."

In the last election, the Liberals made a clear promise that they would not buy the F-35. Instead, Mr. Trudeau proclaimed that a Liberal government would launch an "open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft." However, he did not say what would happen if the F-35 were to win that competition.

In early June, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was twice asked whether he would pursue an "open" competition to buy new jets, and twice responded about the urgent need to replace the CF-18s to meet Canada's international commitments.

"We are looking at a gap that we have to deal with. These jets should have been replaced a long time ago," Mr. Sajjan said.