In The Media

Political games continue to swirl around the F-35

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. James Fegusson)
August 25, 2012 

OTTAWA — More than four months after the auditor general raised concerns about the Harper government’s handling of the $25-billion F-35 program, the political spin continues — with no end in sight.

This week was no exception as the NDP held a day of “hearings” into the program, while Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s parliamentary secretary claimed the government never said it had decided to buy the stealth fighter.

And that was only after a senior Lockheed Martin official said the company is still planning its deliveries of 65 F-35s to Canada — the Harper government’s promise to review the purchase notwithstanding.

Defence analysts say the political games surrounding the F-35 are the exception and not the rule as other countries looking to purchase the stealth fighter are engaging in more serious, open discussion about the aircraft.

They worry Canadian taxpayers are tuning out debate on a matter of serious, long-term national security importance to the country — which might suit the Harper government just fine.

“The government probably calculates that if we started to have a real adult conversation about why we want to spend billions of dollars on a fifth-generation fighter in this particular financial climate, Canadians might not agree,” said Kim Nossal, director of Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy.

Many had hoped Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s report on the F-35, which was released at the beginning of April, would present an opportunity to push the reset button after years of defending the increasingly troubled stealth fighter program.

The Harper government committed to conducting a complete review of the stealth fighter program and analyzing other options while pledging full transparency and oversight on things like costs.

It wasn’t long, however, before deadlines started to be missed.

For example, the Harper government had promised to release full cost estimates by the beginning of June, but now that won’t happen until late fall or early winter.

The government insists it is following a seven-step plan that includes freezing funding for the program and conducting a review, but analysts say there has been little evidence alternatives to the F-35 are being considered.

Then this week, Chris Alexander, parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, denied in an interview that the government had ever decided to buy the F-35 — and accused opposition parties of sowing confusion on the issue.

This was despite a long public record showing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers repeatedly committing to and defending the stealth fighter since 2010.

“Governments do this all the time, and it’s totally understandable that they would try to change the conversation,” said University of Ottawa defence expert Philippe Lagasse, who participated in the NDP’s hearings on the F-35 on Tuesday.

“The problem is there’s so much public evidence, that really you’re inviting mockery.”

But while analysts agreed Alexander’s comments were bizarre, they said they serve the purpose of muddying the waters and making it difficult for average Canadians to tell who’s telling the truth.

“As a taxpayer, the annoyance is the Conservative government hasn’t been entirely straight,” said Nossal.

“Instead what the government has done is kind of spin this in a way that is actually quite confusing to ordinary Canadians.”

Analysts say other countries considering the F-35, such as Australia, the United Kingdom and even the United States, have had much more open, frank discussions about the pros and cons of the F-35, which is facing cost overruns and production delays.

But there’s also a sense opposition parties have been contributing to the problem as well by trying to score political points out of the issue.

“The opposition is seeking to maximize the government’s political discomfort,” said Nossal.

“The fact is that both sides, in order to achieve their particular political, electoral objectives, are engaging in a certain degree of elasticity with how one interprets things.”

Ironically, analysts say, this may have played into the Harper government’s hands by turning Canadians off the issue.

“For the government, it’s ideal,” said James Fergusson, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. “It doesn’t allow you to have an open and balanced critical assessment.”

The concern is the politicking has turned average Canadians off at a time when they should be paying more attention than ever.

“Here we have a major procurement, which is a lot of money, which has big implications for the country, for the economy, for the military, which you would think in Canada should be a big issue for us,” Fergusson said. “But it’s not.” 

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