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Harper's handling of F-35 file further erodes accountability

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

The new Auditor-General says the Department of National Defence was overly optimistic about the cost of the F-35 fighter jet. Would that they were only guilty of more hope than sense.

To believe that, one would have to believe that they simply didn't see all the stories from different parts of the world about costs of the F-35 rising and customers getting cold feet. That's a tough sell. If DND officials didn't grill their project partners on these issues, it's either because they deliberately chose not to, or were encouraged not to. Hopefully, we'll get to the bottom of whether ministers were genuinely misled by officials, or signalled that they preferred not knowing the facts.

The relationship between DND and the Conservative government started in 2006 with the most passionate embrace any political party has had with the Canadian military in recent history. But it's been on the rocks for a while now.

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On Tuesday, the government "unfriended" and "unfollowed" DND, changed the locks on the door, and cut up the credit card. Then they threw the brass under the bus, and drove back and forth a few times for good measure. Defence Minister Peter Mackay looked like the friend of both caught in the middle, perhaps under suspicion by both parties of wearing the other's jersey.

But setting aside that bit of drama for a minute, how shocking was this week's development?

The F-35 program must have been a growing concern within the Conservative caucus and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet for a pretty long time. Regardless of what their DND briefing notes said, they read the clippings, they sat in the Commons and heard the charges from the opposition benches, as well as those of other critics of the F-35 program. There's little chance that they presumed DND was right with its "don't worry, be happy" line.

A more reasonable assumption is that they knew the day would come when they might have to soften and ultimately rescind their purchase intention. The only question was: What's the least awkward way to do that. The best possible scenario was probably that the program would have collapsed in Washington in the face of the spiralling U.S. fiscal problem.

Barring that, as ugly as the Auditor-General's report was, it may have been the next-best scenario for the Harper government to take the inevitable blow, pivot and try to move on. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, of course. Opposition leaders will try to ensure that more forensic work is done, and that ministers are found to have deliberately misled the House. Jilted parties over at DND may fill up brown envelopes with damning information and litter the press gallery with them.

For the moment, though, the government survived Tuesday's beating in part because they put one of their very best people, Rona Ambrose, front and centre. She fielded angry questions with a steady, serious tone. She offered no partisan bluster – so often done these days in the face of attack, but something that invariably makes a problem bigger rather than smaller. Instead she came across as someone with no affection for DND and no doubt about what her responsibility was. Her recent track record as steward of a huge naval procurement, which was remarkably free of controversy, is an important piece of context here as well.

Standing back from the short-term, cut-and-thrust opportunities and consequences of this issue, it's hard not to feel that the idea of accountability is badly eroded. There was a time that an Auditor-General's report like this would have been received by a prime minister, an apology would have been offered to Parliament and the public, and at least one senior resignation would have been tendered. Certainly as Official Opposition leader, Mr. Harper himself would have expected no less.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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