OTTAWA - Opposition parties had to arm-twist the Conservative government into allowing auditor general Michael Ferguson to be the first witness to comment on his own report at public hearings into the F-35.
The initial refusal of government MPs on the all-party committee to follow this long-standing practice prompted an unusual outburst from MP David Christopherson, the NDP chair, who virtually threatened to quit if the custom was ignored.
Conservative members proposed deputy ministers and officials from four departments be the first witnesses. The public hearings will examine the auditor general's findings that National Defence and Public Works withheld the true cost of the stealth fighter and short-circuited the government's procurement rules.
Christopherson said a failure to hear from Ferguson at the outset of the hearings would result in a manipulation of the process. He pointed out that the government pulled a similar move when the same committee was trying to examine the auditor general's report into G-8 spending.
"This trend is dangerous in terms of the critical importance of (parliamentary) oversight," he told the committee.
The Conservatives, who kept their witness list close to the vest throughout Tuesday's planning meeting, said they were in favour of having Ferguson testify and eventually bowed to NDP and Liberal pressure to make him first.
"We are determined as a government to have a full and complete study of the auditor general's report and that's what we're doing," said MP Andrew Saxton, the lead Conservative member on the committee.
Ferguson will testify Thursday.
The government has clearly heard enough from the auditor general, said Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, who noted Ferguson's last appearance before another parliamentary committee saw him accuse cabinet of knowing the stealth fighter figures were being fudged.
The bombshell report, released April 3, said National Defence officials low-balled the cost of the F-35 in public by at least $10 billion by failing to include continuing expenses such as pilot salaries and fuel. Ferguson estimates the actual life-time cost of the U.S.-built stealth jet is approximately $25 billion.
Both Opposition parties kept up the attack later Tuesday in the House of Commons, accusing Defence Minister Peter MacKay of presenting Parliament with misleading figures.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper lay blame on National Defence and defended MacKay by suggesting the minister was working with the numbers he was given.
"The auditor general questioned the reliability and the completeness of information the department had provided on these costs. That's why the government has committed explicitly re-examining those numbers, as suggested by the auditor general," the prime minister said.
During the committee meeting, both Byrne and Ontario New Democrat Malcolm Allen said cramming four deputy ministers from Public Works, Defence, Industry and Treasury Board into one two-hour time slot would not allow for adequate time to question the officials.
"There's no point having them here, so I can look at the deputy minister for Public Works and look at him and say, 'you're a handsome-looking chap,' and the chair says 'your time is up' and I no longer have an opportunity to speak to him because the meeting is over," Allen said.
"I want to speak to every single one of them. Under this time limitation, I will not be able to do that unless I'm asking them to state their name and their title."
Ontario Conservative MP Daryl Kramp accused both opposition parties of wasting the committee's time by grandstanding.