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Defence Minister Peter MacKay checks out the cockpit of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter after the Conservative government announced its intention to purchase 65 of the next-generation planes at an Ottawa news conference on July 16, 2010.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A 2010 news conference to announce Canada's plan to buy 65 stealth fighters cost taxpayers more than $47,000, according to documents tabled in Parliament.

The figure was revealed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay in a written response to an opposition question.

Liberal defence critic John McKay wanted details about the event, which saw Mr. MacKay, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose and Treasury Board President Tony Clement pose with a fake F-35 built by manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The response shows Lockheed Martin offered up the model and transported it "to Ottawa via flatbed transport truck" at no charge.

The money was well spent, Mr. Clement said Tuesday after Question Period.

"We have an obligation to communicate our decisions," he said. "We decided to give a visual portrayal of what we were talking about. We had over 100 stakeholders who were there, who were invited because they are experts in the field of the fighter jets. I don't think we have to make any apologies about that."

Jay Paxton, a spokesman for the defence minister, says almost half of the $47,313 spent by National Defence went to the audio-visual company that helped stage the event.

He says the expense was necessary because the news conference involved a number of national media outlets, as well as more than 100 invited guests.

Ambrose turned aside questions on Monday, saying the event wasn't something that involved her department.

"I'm not aware of the cost of the actual announcement, but I would ask the Department of National Defence," Ms. Ambrose said. "I'm not sure what went into the announcements in terms of technical requirements for that day or if there were stakeholders that participated."

Mr. MacKay is out of the country at a defence conference in the Far East and it was left to Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino to defend the photo-op in the House of Commons.

"The announcement to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s was considered significant and necessary to ensure public, media and industry awareness," he said. "The cost of this announcement has been reported in many ways, including previous responses to written questions."

Since coming to power in 2006, the Conservatives have used Parliament's down time in the summer to focus the spotlight on one – sometimes two – "announceables" related to the Canadian military.

Critics have dismissed them as a publicity stunts designed to limit pointed opposition and public questions.

The news from the July 16, 2010, event was only that the government intended to pursue a deal to purchase the advanced fighter-bomber, not that a contract had been reached. Mr. McKay said he wondered how such news could justify the expense.

The resulting photos and news footage, which showed the minister sitting in the cockpit of the plane, have been resurrected virtually every time the F-35 makes news.

That's one expensive photo, the Liberals say.

"I think in the military they call it the hero shot," Mr. McKay said. "This was 47-grand for the minister to park his posterior in the airplane and smile for cameras."

It came at the same time the Conservatives were taking heat for spending $2-million on a fake lake to serve as a backdrop at the G8/G20 Summit media centre in Toronto.

"If you can go fake lakes and fake airplanes, then the [communications] message becomes everything and in this case with the F-35 the photo-op was the message," Mr. McKay said.

"It speaks to the larger issue of the absolute cynicism and contempt that this government has for the Parliament of Canada, members of Parliament and the people of Canada."

Before coming to power, the Conservatives habitually criticized the Liberals under Paul Martin for their "government by photo-op" style.

New Democrats seized on the revelation and used it to accuse the government of being more interested in political optics than actually delivering equipment to the military.

"We've got billions in procurement mismanagement, tens of thousands squandered on a photo-op and the whole defence plan now back to the drawing board," NDP defence critic Jack Harris said, referring to news earlier this week that the Conservatives are re-drafting a list of planned military purchases.

News of the cost comes as the government is taking fire for attempting to shut down a House of Commons committee investigation into the Auditor-General's criticism of the stealth fighter arrangement.

The public accounts committee has heard testimony from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and a parade of senior officials, including the deputy minister of defence and the head of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In his April 3 report, Mr. Ferguson tore a strip off National Defence and Public Works, accusing them of hiding the full cost of the multibillion-dollar plan and not following proper procedures.

Behind closed doors, Conservative members of the committee have apparently put forward a motion to begin writing their report, even though Mr. MacKay, Ms. Ambrose and Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino have yet to testify.

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