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Keith Beardsley Headshot

Answers to F-35 Fiasco Lie in a Black Box of Bureaucracy

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The Auditor-General has released his report on the Defence Department's handling of the F-35 procurement process. It is not a pretty report and both DND and Public Works get slammed for how they have conducted the process.

Needless to say the headlines are all about how the Tories mishandled things with Bob Rae going so far as to demand the Prime Minister resign. I guess you say such things when you are the leader of a third party desperate to get into the news cycle and you have Justin Trudeau getting top headlines over the weekend. But let's not kid ourselves: If the Conservatives were in opposition, you can bet they would be pulling out all of the stops as well. Question Period would be like a war zone.

That too is the way it should be as it is up to the opposition parties to thoroughly question the government on behalf of those footing the bill for this aircraft -- namely Canadian taxpayers.

Ministers who did due diligence on a file will rarely accept blame for screw-ups in departments. Nor will a Prime Minister ask for a minister's resignation simply because the opposition is demanding one. The first question should become how diligent were they? Did they question what they had been told by officials? If they did either verbally or in writing, what answers were they given? It is one thing if they had been given the correct information and refused to use it; quite another if they were briefed with misleading or wrong information.

To be fair, ministers can only report on what they have been told by departmental officials. It would be rare in any government, never mind this one, to find a minister or staffer who is an expert on the intricacies surrounding the procurement of military equipment. The end result is they are briefed by departmental officials on the need for the equipment, they are briefed on expected costs, and they are briefed on anticipated problems and delays and on potential industrial benefits to Canada.

The second question becomes how well did DND fulfill their obligation to give the minister and the government the most up-to-date and accurate information? Anyone who has been involved in the bureaucracy in Ottawa knows that the preparation of a memo for a minister can be a long and arduous process. The original draft will be amended and signed off by several layers in the chain of command. Numerous individuals will have a say in the approval process and the draft memo will undergo considerable change from its original form. Somewhere there is a sign-off sheet for every briefing memo and every written response prepared for a minister or ministerial staffer on the F-35 issue.

For example, the Auditor-General found some briefing notes that were prepared for ministers were inadequate. He noted that the department failed to adequately provide an accurate range of what to expect from the industrial benefits package and they did not explain how most of the department's assumptions were based on Canadian companies competing on a worldwide basis with other competitors. The net result was a briefing document that did not give the minister a true picture of the industrial benefits to Canada. Did no one involved in the above departmental approval or sign-off process question the accuracy of the briefing notes?

Much the same process is followed when the Privy Council Office (PCO) prepares a briefing note for the Prime Minister. Once again was accurate information put into those notes? Who signed off on the information that went to the Prime Minister?

The department also released information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer on the total cost of the program but failed to include billions of dollars in long term costs, a significant item when costing the program. Who made the decision to release inadequate information? Did no one object internally? When the minister used these released figures, did no one in the department red flag it for the minister to say the number was not completely accurate?

Ministerial talk points and answers for Question Period will be worked on with departmental officials. If a minister provides an incorrect detail in an answer, or gives an incorrect answer to a question or uses an incorrect fact in a speech, the department will red flag it for the minister. Did they this time? If they did, why wasn't a correction made? If the department chose not to correct the minister then that again is a serious issue and begs the question, why?

The Auditor-General's office would have sent a preliminary copy of the report to the departments some months ago so that they would have time to respond to the criticism. As the department knew in a general way what to expect when this report became public, did they tell the minister they needed to adjust their facts? Is this why we have seen the government recently backing away from their unqualified support for the F-35?

There are lots of questions and few answers and none of them will be answered quickly. This issue will have lots of twists and turns in the days ahead. Tempting as it is, at this moment in time it is too soon to decide whose head should roll. Let the games begin, somewhere out there or buried in departmental sign-off sheets is the truth.