Canadians not misled on F-35 costs, Tory MP says

Conservative MP Chris Alexander says Canadians were not misled on the costs of F-35s, despite the auditor general saying this week that the Conservative cabinet would have known the pricetag for the military aircraft was higher than what the public was told.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has faced growing calls for his resignation in the wake of the auditor general's report on the costs of buying and operating 65 F-35 fighter jets for 20 years. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A top Conservative MP responsible for military procurement insists the Conservative government did not mislead Canadians over the costs of F-35s slated to replace Canada's fleet of F-18 military jets.

The comments come after the auditor general said this week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet would have known the pricetag for the military aircraft was higher than what the public was told.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Conservative MP Chris Alexander tells host Evan Solomon he "honestly" doesn't think Canadians were misled on the costs.

When Solomon asked Alexander why the full costs were not disclosed in Parliament, Alexander appeared to point the finger at officials at the Department of National Defence (DND), saying the answer was in the auditor general's report.

"Not all the information that was in the department flowed where it needed to go, upwards and to other departments," said Alexander who serves as parliamentary secretary to National Defence Minister Peter Mackay.

But when pressed on the question of who was responsible for the lack of due diligence, Alexander answered: "We are."

"The government."

And when asked specifically by Solomon whether any ministers should resign over the matter, Alexander would only say that the government "is assuming its responsibility" by accepting the recommendations of the auditor general.

Auditor-Generals' report

Among the revelations in Auditor General Michael Ferguson's report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, was the finding that in June 2010, DND estimated that buying and operating the fighter jets for 20 years would cost the government $25-billion.

However, in March 2011, the department responded to a report written by the parliamentary budget officer on the costs of the F-35s, by saying his estimates were wrong and the cost would be closer to $15-billion.

In his only interview since speaking to reporters after his appearance before the public accounts committee on Thursday, Ferguson told the CBC's Solomon that "we know the department [of National Defence] had those numbers, and they could have brought the numbers forward and said here's what we think the full cost is going to be."

Late Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office said the numbers the government presented in March 2011 did not include operating and salary costs, something the PMO now concedes the government should have done.

When asked by Solomon if Mackay was responsible for protecting the integrity of the process, Ferguson replied "I wouldn't expect that the Minister would be the individual that would exercise all of the due diligence."

According to Ferguson, that's why it's important for the bureaucracy overseeing the program that there be a process in place to asks all of those questions.

When asked whether he believed the Conservatives misled the public, Ferguson explained that the audit "was not about who knew what, when."

"It's difficult to say when the ministers were brought in to understand what those numbers are," the auditor general told Solomon.

"It's fundamentally, I think, a question that the ministers need to answer and the department needs to answer."

F-35 contract flip-flop

In 2010, Defence Minister Peter Mackay said the government had signed a $9-billion contract for the acquisition of 65 F-35s to replace Canada's aging fleet of F-18 aircraft.

However, in recent weeks, the government has said it never did sign a contract.

When asked what forced the government to change its tune, Alexander said there have been "lots of contracts along the way" because Canadian companies have gotten involved by participating in the development of this aircraft starting in the late 1990s.

When pressed on it again, Alexander would only say that the government "made a commitment to acquire" the F-35 in 2010.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has accused the Conservatives of misleading Canadians on the true costs of the aircraft.

And on Thursday, after question period, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae raised a question of privilege in the House of Commons, alleging that the government provided two "completely different and contradictory versions of reality."

The Speaker of the House of Commons will have to decide if there is a prima facie case of privilege and report back to MPs.

Parliament adjourned after that for a scheduled two-week break until April 23rd.