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MacKay to meet U.S. counterpart amid fighter-jet confusion Add to ...

Defence Minister Peter MacKay will be dealing with the future of the F-35 stealth fighter program when he meets Friday in Halifax with his American counterpart, Leon Panetta.

The U.S. Defence Secretary has expressed concern about the program as Washington deals with deep budget cuts, needing to find $1.2-trillion over the next 10 years. Failure by Democrats and Republicans to reach a compromise could put the fighter-jet program in jeopardy, he warned.

That message was heard loud and clear in Canada. MPs seized on Mr. Panetta’s comments, demanding answers from the government as to whether its F-35 program would be scrapped. (Canada is to purchase 65 of the new jets – a controversial decision with the opposition accusing the government of not sending out the multi-million-dollar contract to tender.)

Mr. MacKay will meet Mr. Panetta Friday at the third annual Halifax International Security Forum. The two men will be joined by Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino, who is responsible for procurement.

“They will be discussing bilateral defence issues as well as global developments,” Jay Paxton, the Defence Minister’s communications director, told The Globe Thursday. “As part of these discussions Minister MacKay, Associate Minister Fantino and Secretary of Defence Panetta will discuss the F35.”

There appears, however, to be some confusion within the Harper government on the file. As Ottawa Citizen defence writer notes, Mr. Fantino and Mr. MacKay are sending out contradictory messages.

On Wednesday in the Commons, Mr. Fantino said there was a “Plan B” in the event the planes were not delivered on time. But he added: “The aircraft are coming off the production line. Pilots are flying them. They are being delivered to countries. Our program is on track, on time and we are staying with it.”

Earlier Wednesday, The Globe’s Bill Curry reported that Mr. MacKay had said it was premature to speculate about the future of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program since Canada isn’t receiving its first new jet for another five years. Nevertheless, the Defence Minister said “Canada, like every country, is concerned about delays in delivery and discussions around the cost.”

Chris McCluskey, Mr. Fantino’s communications director, reassured The Globe Thursday morning the program is on track.

“We continue to monitor this investment closely through direct contact with Lockheed Martin and the F-35 joint project office,” he said. “The best plane, and the other state of the art stealth aircraft available to Canada to face the challenges of the next 30 years, is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”

Joe Clark joins prime-ministerial tree collection

Joe Clark was in Kingston this week, visiting Sir John A. Macdonald’s grave and planting a tree in the backyard of one of the first prime minister’s most ardent fans, Arthur Milnes.

Mr. Milnes, an author and journalist, is also a Canadian prime ministerial junkie. He is gradually working on getting all of living prime ministers to plant trees in his yard.

And Mr. Clark, the former Progressive Conservative prime minister, is the third to have done so. Mr. Clark’s tree stands along side those of former prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin.

“Mr. Clark proved a very able tree planter,” Mr. Milnes said. “The Joe Clark tree is an Aspen, the Martin a Gingko, and the Turner a smoke tree. Mr. Clark complimented the Turner tree on its colours.”

Before the tree planting, Mr. Milnes, who is also commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial, took Mr. Clark to the first prime minister’s grave. “The graveyard was deserted and we chatted a lot about the Macdonald legacy,” he said.

And there was one other reason for Mr. Clark’s visit to Kingston. He was there to support his friend, Bruce Alexander, a lawyer who had served as special advisor to Mr. Clark during the Charlottetown negotiations who was receiving an honorary degree from Queen’s University.

Mr. Alexander is also the father of Chris Alexander, the rookie MP and parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister.

Exit, Tom Kent

Tom Kent, an influential policy-maker, mandarin and journalist who investigated the state of media concentration in Canada, has died. He was 89.

Mr. Kent is known in journalism schools across the country as head of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, commonly referred to by his surname. Released in 1981, it rang a warning bell about the lack of opinion and diversity in Canadian newspapers as a result of the concentration of ownership.

He argued that newspaper owners not be allowed to have radio and television licences. The Trudeau government adopted the recommendation but it was abandoned by the Mulroney government.

Mr. Kent was also responsible for Liberal election platforms in the 1962 and 1963 campaigns, and he served as a senior policy adviser to Lester Pearson.

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