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Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

On the F-35 fighter jet, the government is practicing stealth transparency Add to ...

Governments love to hunt for it, but there is no such creature as cheap and simple military procurement.

On Sept. 20, 2015, then-candidate Justin Trudeau gave a speech in Halifax vowing to scrap an expensive deal to buy the F-35 stealth fighter, an arrangement mothballed by the previous government amid allegations of papering over exploding costs. The basic promise Mr. Trudeau made that day involved an “open and transparent competition” to replace Canada’s CF-18 tactical fighter-bombers.

Much may be happening behind the scenes, but nine months on we’re still waiting for the promised transparency; it’s emerging as a pattern with this cabinet.

If Mr. Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan remain committed to pulling out of the F-35 process they should say so, and explain why. Or, explain the change of heart.

Instead of clarity, there are ominous portents. Cabinet is reported to be considering an interim replacement to plug a capability “gap” Mr. Sajjan has yet to discuss in detail publicly. This Anything-But-The-F-35 aircraft would reportedly be acquired via sole-source contract. No new evidence should be required to demonstrate why that’s a bad idea.

In this and other regards, the F-35 saga bears a growing resemblance to another abject Liberal procurement failure: the EH-101 helicopter fiasco. Back in 1993, an opposition leader ran on a simple promise to kill an unpopular deal. After Jean Chrétien won the election, there followed financial penalties and epic contortions to forestall the humiliation of the rejected chopper winning an open bid. More than two decades on, only a handful of new aircraft have been delivered.

There’s no rule that says Canada must stick with the project, if there’s a compelling reason to drop it. The placid waters of the status quo will be roiled one way or the other. Delay is no less costly than hasty, ill-advised action. The EH-101 saga featured both.

It’s time for the Trudeau government to make the call one way or the other, and show that transparency in military procurement is more than just a campaign promise.

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