The government has changed the name of a new body set up to handle the process to replace Canada's CF-18 fighter jets after criticism it was biased in favour of the embattled F-35.
Opposition MPs pointed to the F-35 secretariat's name as a sign the government wasn't being honest when MPs said they would start over on the process to buy new fighter jets.
Public Works and Government Services Minister Rona Ambrose confirmed the name change Wednesday in Halifax. The body is now called the national fighter procurement secretariat, she said, adding the name change signals a change in policy.
"I think it's self-evident that the change in policy is that the government is, as we've indicated, hitting restart with this process," Ambrose said.
"One of the reasons for establishing the secretariat is to ensure that we have independently validated information about everything that we need to consider, including the aircraft, and so that will be part of the mandate for the secretariat."
"They will come back to us once they've done that comprehensive, independently validated work and make a recommendation to the government."
Established in response to auditor general's report
An April 3 news release in response to the auditor general's report said the government would "immediately establish a new F-35 Secretariat" to co-ordinate the replacement of the CF-18 fleet, which is due to be retired in 2020.
"The Department of National Defence will continue to evaluate options to sustain a Canadian Forces fighter capability well into the 21st century," the release said.
The commander of the air force, Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, made it clear Tuesday that the F-35 purchase is the plane he wants.
"The F-35 is the aircraft that we assessed in 2010 as the platform that met our needs, all our requirements," he told a House committee. "Currently, from an air force perspective, we are focused on delivering the transition to the F-35s."
Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that defence officials hid key details of the full F-35 cost, despite repeated requests from MPs, the finance committee and Parliament. Defence officials had two sets of estimates — one used internally and one to be used publicly. Ferguson later noted that cabinet would have known the full cost when it approved the plane's purchase.
Ambrose says the secretariat, which is being run through her department, has had its first meeting and is working out the terms of reference. They've asked National Defence to start work on update cost estimates for the F-35, she said. That will involve going to the U.S. to meet with the joint strike fighter program office leading the airplane's development "to get a specific update as to the implications on the cost of the ... F-35 model that Canada had been looking at."
Ambrose's comments come one week after one of her colleagues first mentioned the change.
Last Wednesday, Chris Alexander, parlimentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said secretariat's name had changed.
"The secretariat you talk about [being] called the F35 secretariat — no it's not, it's called the fighter jet procurement secretariat," Alexander told Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics.
Despite repeated requests over a week, a spokeswoman for Ambrose refused to answer questions about the secretariat's name or whether it had started work.