Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed a question Sunday about whether his government lied about the cost of owning a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, arguing it always talked about the $9-billion acquisition cost.
He defended the fact the government provided only the cost to buy the planes, despite months of questions about what the planes will cost to fly, beyond the initial purchase cost.
Opposition MPs made the operational costs a focus of their questions on the plan to buy 65 F-35 planes, leading the House of Commons to vote in February 2011 to force the government to hand over those costs. Eventually, after then House Speaker Peter Milliken ruled the House had the power to compel the government to hand over those and other documents, MPs voted no confidence in the government, driving Canada into the 2011 federal election.
On April 3, Auditor General Michael Ferguson reported the government had internal estimates for the F-35s that included an additional $10 billion in operational costs, but that it wasn't made public despite repeated demands. He also found the Department of National Defence didn't provide complete information to decision-makers.
Asked Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, whether the government lied about its estimates, Harper again focused on the cost to buy the planes.
"The numbers you talk about are different numbers costing different things. The number that I have talked about is the number we have budgeted for the acquisition of the F-35," he said.
"Other numbers cited ... obviously have to do with not just the acquisition of the F-35, but operations of the F-35. There's more than one number, there's more than one cost depending on what you're counting. These things have all been well known for some time. But in terms of our numbers, we've been very clear — we are going to operate within the budget that we have set."
Opposition calls special committee meeting
In Ottawa, the House public accounts committee confirmed it will reconvene for a special meeting at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday to study the Auditor General's report on the F-35s, days before MPs are scheduled to return from their Easter break.
The official notice of the meeting indicated that four members of the committee had requested the meeting.
MP Malcolm Allen told CBC News on Sunday that he and two other NDP members of the committee — Matthew Dubé and Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe — had sent letters to the clerk of the committee last Friday calling for a special meeting before Parliament is scheduled to resume on April 23.
Liberal MP Gerry Byrne made the same request last Thursday.
While the opposition parties have banded together to reconvene the committee earlier than expected, the committee's Conservative majority will still control the agenda.
"My expectation is that they will immediately move to go in-camera," Allen said.
Witness list dispute
Committee members currently have two motions before them, held over from their last meeting: The first is from Liberal MP Byrne and is backed by the NDP, while the second is from Conservative MP Andrew Saxton.
Both motions call on the committee to study Chapter 2 of the auditor general's report on replacing Canada's fighter jets, but the Liberal motion includes a specific list of at least 10 witnesses, while the Conservative motion does not.
Liberal MP Gerry Byrne's list of witnesses includes but is not limited to:
- Michael Ferguson, auditor general of Canada
- Kevin Page, parliamentary budget officer
- Dan Ross, assistant deputy minister (materiel), National Defence
- Lt.-Gen. J.P.A. Deschamps, chief of the air staff, National Defence
- Michael J. Slack, F-35 project manager, director of continental materiel co-operation, National Defence
- Col. D.C. Burt, director, new generation fighter capability, National Defence
- Tom Ring, assistant deputy minister, acquisitions branch, Public Works and Government Services Canada
- Johanne Provencher, director general, defence and major projects directorate, Public Works and Government Services Canada
- Richard Dicerni, deputy minister, Industry Canada
- Craig Morris, deputy director, F-35 industrial participation, Industry Canada
In a telephone interview Sunday, Byrne accused the Conservatives of using their majority to limit the list of witnesses committee members will hear from.
"If their motion were to pass as a result of them defeating my motion, then we would go into an in-camera session and hash out who the witness list would be," Byrne said. "They would then use their majority to limit the witness list."
According to Byrne, the Conservatives would call Defence Minister Peter Mackay "at the exclusion" of all other witnesses.
"We need to find out from the people who dealt with the Americans on a daily basis. What did they know? When did they know it? And whom did they inform?" Byrne said.
"Is this going to be a real inquiry into this matter, or is it going to be a whitewash by having witnesses whom they can control?"
Conservative MP Saxton was out of the country Sunday evening and unavailable for an interview. But in a statement to CBC News, he said "our motion was delayed by Liberal games."
"At the next meeting we will push to pass our motion as we welcome a study," Saxton said.
Speaking to reporters on the last day of the Summit of the Americas in Cartegena, Colombia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied that he misled Canadians on the costs of the F-35s.
After releasing a scathing report on replacing Canada's fighter jets earlier this month, auditor general Michael Ferguson said cabinet would have known the true cost of buying fighter jets was higher than what the public was actually told.
The government's internal estimates were nearly $10 billion higher than the $14.7-billion cost for F-35s that was announced publicly.