F-35 costs study planning put off until Tuesday

MPs who returned to Ottawa for an emergency meeting to set up a study into F-35 costs spent two hours arguing and put off any discussion of the study until next week.

Fighter jet study sputters as MPs bicker over motions

The federal government's planned purchase of F-35 fighter jets is mired in controversy over hidden costs and irregularities. (U.S. Air Force/Canadian Press)

MPs who returned to Ottawa for emergency meeting on the F-35 fighter jets spent two hours arguing and then decided to put off any discussion of the study until next week.

Conservative MPs also used their majority on the committee to leave themselves the option of closing next Tuesday's planning meeting to the public.

The Conservatives and Liberals both presented motions at the House public accounts committee to study an April 3 auditor general report, but MPs, who returned to Ottawa on a parliamentary break week for the meeting, argued over whose motion to consider. The official reason for Thursday's meeting was to consider whether to study the report, but the opposition and government agreed on the need for a study ahead of time.

Conservative MPs argued the committee should meet again on April 24 to set the list of experts to invite, saying if they didn't have notice they would be setting a witness list Thursday.

"Nobody said today was a planning meeting. We didn’t get the courtesy of that motion," Conservative MP Bev Shipley said.

Liberal motion voted down

The Liberal motion, which was voted down, included several bureaucrats involved with the F-35 purchase.

Generally witness lists are determined by a committee and its staff, with the chair setting the order. Liberal MP Gerry Byrne suggested the Conservatives wouldn't vote for his motion because they didn't want to lock in the witnesses and asked why that was.

"We have to get to the bottom of this. We have to get to the bottom of this quickly so that we can put this program, or at least this exercise, back on track quickly, to protect taxpayers’ money," he said before the meeting.

NDP MP Dave Christopherson, who chairs the committee, sounded frustrated as he suggested a number of compromises to try to get the MPs to move on with the planning.

Witness list dispute

MPs will use Tuesday's meeting to discuss which witnesses they want to hear from. They are planning to hear the first witness on April 26.

But the Conservative MPs on the committee voted against an NDP motion to ensure the next planning meeting be held in public.

 The Liberal list of witnesses includes:

  • Michael Ferguson, auditor general. 
  • 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.

The NDP's list of witnesses is expected to add:

  • Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff.
  • Robert Fonberg, deputy minister of defence.
  • Alan Williams, former assistant deputy minister (materiel), National Defence, who has criticized the F-35 process.
  • Jerome Berthelette, the assistant auditor general who was the lead on the F-35 study.
  • An assistant deputy minister of National Defence referred to in documents as P. Lessard, who raised concerns in 2010 over the program's assessment as "low risk."
  • François Guimont, deputy minister of public works.
  • University of Ottawa military expert Philippe Lagassé.
  • Josée Touchette, assistant deputy minister (public affairs), National Defence.
  • And other officials who were part of the review process for the next-generation fighter jet, including Lt.-Gen. T.J. Lawson, deputy commander of NORAD.

Despite concerns that the Conservatives, who outnumber opposition MPs on the committee, could move the meeting behind closed doors, the whole meeting was held in public.

Earlier this month,the auditor general reported the government had internal estimates for the F-35s that included an additional $10 billion in operational costs, but that figure wasn't made public, despite repeated demands. He also found the Department of National Defence didn't provide complete information to decision-makers.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay insisted the $10-billion cost estimate discrepancy was simply a matter of accounting "differences" — despite the Treasury Board regulations and previous auditor general reports that call for operational cost estimates to be included in spending outlines.

MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper also dismissed opposition accusations that the government has misled Parliament and Canadians on the cost of the F-35s, which are anticipated to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.

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.

Follow Kady O'Malley's committee liveblog. Mobile friendly feed here.

with files from Andrew Davidson