The F-35 controversy reveals a new definition of ministerial responsibility – it now means the ability to assign blame downwards, says Rex.

Read a transcript of this Rex Murphy episode

Is anyone in charge? Or is Peter MacKay a kind of Honorary Defence Minister?  The beauty of honorary positions is that you get the rank and the privileges of High Office – staff, limos, entourage, lodges – but you’re not really responsible for anything. 

The helicopters pick you up, you go to all the big-buzz meetings (lovely group photos), but if something falls apart, or looks like it is about to – well, you’re just an honorary, a seat-warmer with status, like Peter MacKay.

He’s Canada’s Defence Minister – he’s a big man at the cabinet table, he’s next to being as powerful as Stephen Harper himself.  Except when anything goes wrong.  Like F-35 costs, procurement, projections or anything to do with any of these. Then he’s just Peter MacKay – Honorary Defence Minister -- an ornament, not an engine.  Do I need to point out that a real minister would resign after this week’s sad comedy?

There’s another aspect to this sorry affair.  The Harper Conservatives seem to have been very much superior – in handling issues, presenting a case, or just plain getting things done – when they were in a minority.  Since their triumphant majority they fall apart in a new and ingenious ways almost every day.

They accuse rivals of acting like child pornographers, can’t outline their big legislation and on something like a potentially $25-billion (and questionable) purchase, their Defence Minister – I think that’s Peter MacKay – seems to have been in another room, possibly another dimension, the whole time it was talked about.

Now, in the Commons they’re jabbering on about ‘working to improve the process.’  Hey, buying the jets, planning to spend $25-billion IS the process.

When a cost-cutting, deficit-slashing, fiscally-responsible government, one that is cutting 20-thousand jobs, contemplates spending $25-billion, the process should already be so "improved" that there is no way to improve it further. 

To save 5-billion they’ll squeeze the turnip ‘til it can recite the Order Paper in Latin.  But, to push 25-billion out the door – well, they’re going to work to ‘improve the process.’

Incidentally what part of improving the process would letting the House and citizens know the cost, fall under?  The Auditor General made it clear today that the costs ‘would have been known throughout government’, that the Defence Department’s $16-billion estimate was moonshine and most importantly, that this was known before the last election.

If Stephen Harper were in Opposition now and it was Liberals who bought about this mess he would be heaving thunderbolts and breathing righteous fire about ‘arrogant and incompetent Liberals.’ and he would be right.  But, you know Liberals and Conservatives are more like twins in this stuff than either of them can bear to acknowledge.

Mal-administration, stonewalling and feigned ignorance – a trinity of evasion such as the Auditor General revealed this week – would demand a resignation from any government with a conscience. Or, where ministers were more than just ornaments.

For The National, I’m Rex Murphy.