CARTAGENA, Colombia - Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the full cost of his government's plan to purchase the F-35 stealth fighters has been "well known" for some time, but the final figure depends on what you're counting.
Answering questions at a news conference following the close of the Summit of the Americas, Harper said he's always been clear about the jets $9-billion acquisition cost. But he denied Canadians were misled about the purchase in the run-up to the last spring's federal election.
"There's more than one number, there's more than one cost depending upon what you are counting," Harper said.
Earlier this month, auditor general Michael Ferguson ignited a political firestorm when he released a report suggesting the Conservatives and the Defence Department hid the true cost of the radar-evading jet that the military claims will be critical to national sovereignty in the future.
One of the auditor's biggest complaints was that the Defence Department did not include the anticipated $10 billion life-time operating cost in its public pitch for the aircraft.
The exclusion of figures such as pilots' salaries, fuel and consumable spares, is a long-standing practise at the Defence Department — something previous auditors-general have complained about.
The Harper government and defence officials have long touted the price tag as $14.7 billion, but Ferguson put the projected 20-year cost of the program, including maintenance, at closer to $25 billion.
More importantly, the auditor said the cabinet must have known the full price tag before the last election, which was precipitated in part by the refusal of the Conservatives to provide the House of Commons with figures related to the program.
"The numbers you talk about are different numbers costing different things," Harper said on Sunday.
"The number I have talked about is the number we have budgeted for the acquisition of the F-35. And I've been very clear, those budgetary numbers are the numbers under which we are going to live."
The opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of lying to taxpayers.
Both the Liberals and the NDP are demanding a special House of Commons inquiry into the auditor's report and the military's plan to buy 65 of the advanced fighters, a U.S. program that has been hammered with cost overruns and delays.
Liberal MP Gerry Byrne and the three New Democrat MPs on the public accounts committee asked for an emergency meeting, even though Parliament is in recess until next week.
The Liberals have also launched a petition calling on the government "to tell the truth" about the fighter jet program.
Last week, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said his department will, from now on, include the operating costs in public statements of its planned purchases.
_ By Murray Brewster in Ottawa.
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.