POLITICS

Commons committee investigation into F-35 fiasco hangs on by a thread

06/21/2012 05:56 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The Harper government's attempt to shut down a House of Commons committee investigation into the handling the F-35 stealth-fighter deal has failed, thanks to a filibuster by the Opposition.

As the Commons adjourned for the summer, New Democrats managed to hold up the writing of a final report into the auditor general's criticism of the multibillion-dollar program.

It has been put off until the fall when opposition members will try once again to have more witnesses called before the public accounts committee.

An in-camera motion by Conservative members that called for public hearings to end, and for the committee to conclude its study, was filibustered by an Ontario New Democrat, Malcolm Allen, and other Opposition members.

The committee met one last time before the summer break on Thursday, where the matter was once again delayed.

Allen says the government was determined to put the controversy firmly behind it after auditor general Michael Ferguson's scathing report April 3 tarnished Conservative credentials as competent managers of the public purse.

"They really wanted it to end this session, so that the whole thing would be behind them in the fall," Allen said Thursday.

The auditor general's report accused National Defence of hiding the full cost of the radar-evading jet by playing down the estimated $10 billion in operational expenses anticipated to be spent on the aircraft in the coming decades.

The study also criticized Public Works for not following proper procedure and not demanding more rigorous justifications from the military for its choice of the Lockheed Martin fighter.

Responding to the audit, the Harper government took the file away from defence and gave it to a secretariat under Public Works. The government also promised to release regular cost estimates on the aircraft, which is still in development, and independently verify the figures.

It will be the fall before the public sees an independent assessment. Allen said he believed the government wanted nothing to interfere with that.

"They were looking for an opportunity to say, 'See, everything's wonderful. We have our seven-point plan and everything is moving along,'" he said. "But I'm of the belief there are folks whom we should be talking to."

The committee is not finished its work and should call more witnesses, including Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, and even critics of the program, such as former defence bureaucrat Alan Williams, Allen added.

Also left pending is an opposition motion of contempt, which accuses deputy defence minister Robert Fonberg of misleading the committee with testimony that criticized the auditor, accusing Michael Ferguson of getting it "wrong" in his assessment.

Embers of the political firestorm ignited by the report continued to smolder in the Commons, even as MPs packed their bags for summer. Winnipeg NDP member Pat Martin, in criticizing spending on First Nations services, said the Conservative have no problem writing "a blank cheque for G.I. Joe to buy all the war toys that he wants."

New Democrat procurement critic Matthew Kellway also took some parting shots, comparing the government's sometimes contradictory statements to an old-time comedy route routine.

"Why have the Conservatives turned defence into an Abbott and Costello sketch? Who is on first?"

That prompted a heated response from MacKay, who's shouldered the brunt of the F-35 criticism throughout the spring.

"Our party has spent up to $1 billion annually to replace equipment, support programs, make our forces better and ready to respond, and to support the men and women in uniform," he said.

"What we get is claptrap and insults. The member from Winnipeg referred to war toys. However, C-17s brought compassionate aid to Haiti. Those are not war toys. There has been a lot of work that has been done in Afghanistan to protect those men and women's lives who are doing so much for Canada. That is an insult to our soldiers."