Canada’s Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, released a report Tuesday which found the Conservative government’s procurement process for 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter planes, one of the largest military contracts in Canadian history, to be deeply flawed.
Will the Conservatives sail through this squall virtually unharmed, as they have done countless times before? Probably.
This sort of thing has sunk governments in the past – the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney were eventually gutted by the emergence of the Reform Party, largely because of a decision to move the maintenance contract for the CF-18 from Manitoba to Quebec, despite the Prairie province having had the better bid.
Now those CF-18s are up for replacement. However, Canada has changed since the politically charged days of the 1980s, when the Meech Lake Accord and NAFTA were national debates.
Though the Auditor General’s report is scathing, to many it will merely serve as confirmation of their own impression of the entire affair. Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, identified problems with the government's cost estimates in early March. Stories about the F-35 have made headlines every couple of weeks for the past few years, lessening the impact of the auditor general’s findings.
Voters have likely already internalized the apparent problems with the plan to purchase the F-35 into their voting intentions – it can be expected to make opponents of the Conservatives more confident, while supporters can console themselves that the F-35 is probably still the right aircraft for the men and women of the Canadian Forces. Ferguson's report did not question the suitability of the F-35.
The attempts of the opposition parties to hammer the government over the boondoggle are likely to fall flat. After a long period of minority governments and high-charged partisan politics, Canadians have grown somewhat deaf to the back-and-forth on Parliament Hill.
This is not to say that there will be no blowback for the Tories. A poll conducted by Forum Research just before the Auditor General’s report was released indicated that 40 per cent of Canadians who were aware of the plan to purchase the F-35 felt that a new open competition should be held, compared to 21 per cent who thought the purchase should go ahead. The number of Canadians who feel that a new competition is needed will probably rise.
But even if Conservative voters feel that way, they are unlikely to blame the government. The report was heavily critical of the Department of National Defence, and the government and its supporters have already moved toward blaming DND for keeping them in the dark. Criticizing bureaucrats is red meat for the Tory base, and as the government has not actually purchased the F-35s yet the argument that very little money has been wasted will suffice for many.
No admission of wrongdoing will be made, and it seems very unlikely that any Conservative minister will take the fall. An emphasis on the actions the government will be taking moving forward (freezing spending on the F-35, removing DND’s responsibility for the purchase) could convince the generally disinterested public that the Conservatives are handling the issue adequately.
Though the F-35 could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, there have been expectations for some time now that one straw or another will finally do the job. Past experience tells us the Conservatives will weather this storm, but perhaps by 2015 the weight of nine years in power will be too much for the Tory ship.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.