Tories shoot down NDP motion for defence spending details

Conservative MPs on the defence committee voted down an attempt by the NDP to force Defence Minister Peter MacKay to outline the details of his department's budget cuts in a continuing battle between the government and parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page.

Opposition pushes for budget numbers sought by parliamentary budget officer

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and top brass from the Department of National Defence appeared before the House defence committee Tuesday to talk about the department's spending.

Conservative MPs on the defence committee voted down an attempt by the NDP to force Defence Minister Peter MacKay to outline the details of his department's budget cuts in a continuing battle between the government and parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris tabled a motion to force MacKay to give specific information to Page about the government's planned $5.2 billion in budget cuts. Page has threatened to go to court in order to get the details.

Conservative cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Treasury Board President Tony Clement, say Page is stepping outside his mandate and that they provide a number of public documents every year outlining the government's spending. Many of those documents this year were prepared before Flaherty tabled the budget, so the cuts weren't included in those reports.

MacKay was appearing before the committee to discuss the supplementary estimates for the Department of National Defence, a budget document that can make changes to spending outlined in previously planned spending.

The NDP and Liberal MPs on the committee voted in favour of Harris's motion, but the Conservative MPs outnumbered them and voted it down, denying Page the information he's seeking.

MacKay refused to comment on Harris's motion as he left the meeting, saying it was up to the committee and not up to him.

Earlier in the meeting, Harris tried to ask MacKay about which programs and jobs are being cut.

"We do have significant decreases in operating budget expenditures within your department. The parliamentary budget officer has been trying to get you and your department to identify where they are," Harris said.

No details on what exactly has been cut

Chris Alexander, MacKay's parliamentary secretary, objected to the question, but the committee's Conservative chair James Bezan let the question go ahead.

MacKay referred to $91 million cut after the 2012 spending review, plus $280 million available because of changes to when some equipment will be bought or infrastructure built, as well as fewer mission costs now that Canada has a training mission rather than a fighting force in Afghanistan, but didn't get into details about those changes.

"The department is committed to the effective stewardship of public funds," MacKay said.

The department isn't looking for more money in its supplementary estimates, he said, and has shifted spending within its budget to accommodate the cuts.

The department is still aiming to buy new fixed-wing search and rescue planes, tactical armoured patrol vehicles and surface combatants, MacKay said.

Liberal defence critic John McKay referred to the committee as the fog of war, with Conservative MPs objecting with points of order every time the opposition tried to ask questions.

"You throw up a bunch of non-information, lack of information, absence of information, misleading information, and then you leave," he said.

"For God's sakes, Kevin Page is probably one of the few people on God's green earth who can actually go through not only the budget but supplements and ask the right questions."

Flaherty promised the government-wide budget cuts wouldn't affect front-line services, but Page reported earlier this month that most cuts will hit services on which Canadians rely.

Search plane requirements broadened

MacKay also told MPs Tuesday that the military is finally moving ahead with much-delayed plans to purchase new search and rescue aircraft.

Eight years ago, $1.3 billion was set aside to purchase replacements for the aging fleet of C-115 Buffalos, C-138 Twin Otters and older versions of C-130 transport planes currently on search and rescue duty across the country.

But the procurement process for new planes was halted and otherwise bogged down at several points. Allegations surfaced that the military had tailored the specifications to favour the particular aircraft of only one preferred supplier.

MacKay now says that his department is considering having more than one type of aircraft in its search and rescue fleet.

"We've broadened, in fact, the specs, to include the possibility of a mixed fleet," he said in his committee testimony.

CBC News has learned that the military recently sought approval for $1.8 billion to replace this fleet – $500 million more than the original 2004 estimate for the procurement.

Inflation, plus additional crew and maintenance costs should the military purchase multiple types of aircraft, could factor into the now higher price tag.

Military estimates for the total cost of the new search and rescue fleet – including training, infrastructure, and 20 years of maintenance – approach nearly $4 billion.

with files from James Cudmore