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.
FIIn this file photo taken on July 14, 2011 and released by U.S. Air Force, a USAF F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to replace aging jets in its air force and bolster its defense capability amid regional uncertainty. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)
A F-35 Lightning II sits on stage during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II delivery ceremony on July 19, 2012 at Lockheed Martin Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Plane models stand outside the Lockheed Martin Corporation during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II Delivery Ceremony on July 19, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet sits in front the entrance of the Asian Aerospace 2004 show in Singapore 24 February 2004. The Asia Pacific offers one of the world's strongest prospects for defence-related spending, US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin said Tuesday as it expressed confidence in remaining a major supplier to the region's governments (AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN)
(AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA)
A Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lighning II fighter jet sits on the tarmac for static display at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 12, 2012. Boeing's much-delayed 787 Dreamliner is set to star at the Singapore Airshow this week where companies touting private jets and defence hardware to the Asian market will also be out in force. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
(ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
On Feb. 16, 2012, the first external weapons test mission was flown by an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35A is designed to carry up to 18000 pounds on 10 weapon stations featuring four weapon stations inside two weapon bays, for maximum stealth capability, and an additional three weapon stations on each wing.
IN AIR, NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, MD - FEBRUARY 11: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been received by U.S. Military prior to transmission) In this image released by the U.S. Navy courtesy of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight February 11, 2011 over the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Cmdr. Eric 'Magic' Buus flew the F-35C for two hours, checking instruments that will measure structural loads on the airframe during flight maneuvers. The F-35C is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear for greater control when operating in the demanding carrier take-off and landing environment. (Photo by U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin via Getty Images)
Courtesy: NAVAIR/JSF Program/Lockheed Martin
Highlights of F-35 flight testing at NAS Patuxent River, Md., NAS Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, and Edwards AFB, Calif.
The first night flight in the history of the Lockheed Martin F-35 program was completed on Jan. 19, 2012 in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Piloted by Lockheed Martin Test Pilot Mark Ward, AF-6, an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, launched at 5:05 pm PST and landed after sunset at 6:22 pm
An F-35 test pilot talks about airstart testing at Edwards AFB, Calif., in early 2012.