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The Globe and Mail

Tories try to stall auditor's testimony on costly F-35 purchase

An F-35 Lightning II jet lands at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on July 14, 2011.

Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force

Trying to buck tradition, Conservative MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee attempted Tuesday to delay testimony by the Auditor-General on the bungled process to purchase new fighter jets.

However, committee chair David Christopherson expressed his outrage at the tactic, threatening to quit his position if the Conservatives used their majority to avoid hearing from the federal spending watchdog at the launch of the hearings.

"This will not continue with me in the chair," the NDP MP said. "This is wrong."

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The Conservatives on the committee relented and allowed their motion to be amended to include the testimony of Auditor-General Michael Ferguson on Thursday, and other witnesses next week.

The public accounts committee is tasked with studying reports by the Auditor-General and offering oversight of government spending by ensuring departments follow up on the watchdog's findings. The committee is traditionally less partisan than other parliamentary bodies, with an opposition MP in the chair.

Clearly angry, Mr. Christopherson said the Auditor-General's report is "the basis of everything" and that other witnesses cannot be expected to speak about a report if the Auditor-General has not yet detailed his findings.

After the Conservative retreat, Mr. Christopherson thanked the committee for acceding to his wishes.

"May I just say very sincerely my appreciation to the government for the respect that you've shown Parliament and the office of the Auditor-General," Mr. Christopherson told Conservative MPs.

Andrew Saxton, the parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board President, sparked the firestorm when he tabled a motion that only included invitations to top officials from Public Works, Defence, Industry and the Treasury Board, and any relevant subordinates.

Mr. Saxton added that the committee could eventually hear from Mr. Ferguson, but refused to be pinned down on the issue of timing or other witnesses.

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Liberal MP Gerry Byrne expressed his outrage at the Conservative tactics on the committee.

"This is a cover-up in the making," Mr. Byrne said.

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