Ambrose tired of 'competing agendas' on defence purchases

In a rare moment of public exasperation, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose told defence contractors Wednesday she's 'tired of being told why something can't be done' when it comes to military purchases.

Public works minister expresses frustration with procurement process at trade show for military suppliers

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose told defence contractors Wednesday she's tired of duplication and competing agendas within government when it comes to military purchases.

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, seen here in the House of Commons last week, told defence contractors at a military trade show Wednesday that she's tired of duplication and competing agendas within government when it comes to military purchases. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It was a rare moment of public exasperation from a usually composed cabinet minister.

Ambrose, who has largely escaped the political fury over the stealth-fighter procurement, faced contractors at an annual military trade show.

Many are frustrated with the Conservative government's seeming inability to deliver on some long-standing commitments, such as search-and-rescue planes, which have been stuck in the system for nearly a decade.

Ambrose expressed sympathy, but offered no quick fixes.

"Frankly, when it comes to procurement, I'm a little tired of being told why something can't be done," Ambrose said.

"I'm also tired of being told I can only get partial buy-in for new ideas because people would rather see things fail first. And I've become tired of all of the duplication and competing agendas."

"I am fully aware of all of the internal obstacles to change, but I realize we won't be able to transform the procurement system overnight."

Ministers absent from F-35 hearings

It was one of the most candid statements from any minister in the wake of the bungled F-35 jetfighter proposal, which saw the auditor general tear a strip off the Harper government for not doing its homework and following proper channels in the planned multibillion-dollar acquisition.

Ambrose's frustrations with the military procurement process were voiced the same week the public accounts committee is considering a Conservative motion behind closed doors to stop hearing witnesses about the F-35 cost discrepancies.

Neither Ambrose, Defence Minister Peter MacKay nor his associate minister Julian Fantino have been called to testify, despite opposition requests for them to appear.

"Minister Ambrose described a federal government in chaos when it comes to how billions of dollar of taxpayers money is spent on military hardware," Liberal committee member Gerry Byrne said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

Byrne suggested that Ambrose's speech would have been vetted by the prime minister's office and the defence minister's office. Neither MacKay nor Fantino were speaking at the trade show, although Fantino, who is responsible for defence procurement, did attend briefly on Wednesday.  Industry Minister Christian Paradis was making a speech there Thursday morning.

"With so much at stake, there is no excuse for either of these ministers to be absent from appearing before the committee," Byrne said. 

Search and rescue plane purchase delayed

The industry was told privately that the issuing of a full tender call to replace nearly 50-year-old C-115 Buffalos and C-130 Hercules transports likely won't happen until the end of next year.

Defence sources said that means the actual contract won't be signed until the following year.

Federal budget documents, tabled a few weeks ago in Parliament, suggested that replacements for the search planes, some of which are facing shortages of spare parts, won't be on the flight line and fully operational until 2017.

Industry observers speculated that part of the delay may have to do with tightening federal budgets. But part of it may also lay in the process.

The program has long faced accusations that specifications were rigged in favour of one company, Italian aircraft-maker Alenia and its C-27J.

Ambrose signalled Wednesday that the process for buying the new search plane would follow a path similar to the National Shipbuilding Strategy, which was universally heralded as fair and open.

The industry will be consulted the whole time and will even get a look at draft tendering documents, perhaps as early as this fall.

There will also be a fairness monitor who will talk with contractors, she said.

'Reasonable approach': Lockheed Martin

Defence contractors were elbowing each other out of the way to draw attention to their proposals at CANSEC, the annual military trade show in Ottawa.

Alenia Aermacchi announced it had struck a deal with General Dynamics Canada, Newfoundland-based Provincial Aerospace and DRS Canada to pursue the contract.

Boeing is showcasing its tilt-wing V-22 Osprey.

Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defence company, and Cascade Aerospace said they were teaming up. Both of them recently did business with the air force providing new C-130-J Hercules transports and support for those aircraft.

Jim Grant, vice-president of Lockheed Martin's air mobility division, said the delays represent the Canadian government doing its due diligence.

"From my perspective it sounds like a very reasonable approach," he said. "If they can move forward that way, it's very smart government."

David Schellenberg, CEO of Cascade, said "all the industry is looking for is a fair, open and transparent process."

with files from CBC News