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Is That the F-35 Engine Starting? Or My Headache?

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With no disrespect intended to Canada's auditor general, the debate over the F-35 stealth fighter is starting to give me a headache.

What started as a well-meaning exercise in fiscal accountability has developed into almost a daily buzz saw of claims, accusations, innuendo, exaggeration, outright lies and verbal flatulence.

That's not to say what has been unfolding in Ottawa is unimportant. Quite the contrary, it's incredibly serious and depending on how it all ends, the debate over this yet-to-be-proven, supposedly radar-evading, very, very, very expensive aircraft could have far-reaching implications for how we are governed.

There are some who thump the tub and insist it's all about capability, and giving the air force the plane it needs to bomb the crap out of China or Russia, or some other pretender to the throne. There is something to be said for that argument, but now is not the time to make it because with roughly four million of the estimated 10 million lines of software which power this jet have yet to be written, no one -- and I mean no one -- can make a credible argument about capability. The fact is we won't know until 2018-19 whether this miracle of modern technology can do what it is advertised.

Others, notably the parliamentary budget officer and auditor general, insist it's about accountability and process. There is even more to be said for that argument. After all, we expect our government to do its homework -- in writing -- before it spends billions of our dollars.

You would also expect the people writing those reports to be honest with themselves, remember that it is our money they're spending, and treat the exercise with a healthy degree of skepticism rather than as the shiny new toy that we must have. You'd think that would be especially important when you are dealing with something that may -- or may not -- work as advertised. And we expect our government to tell us how much it will cost, without qualification, fudging, hemming, hawing or some kind of greasy sales pitch.

Parliamentary committees always have a whiff of circus around them, no matter what is being discussed. You almost expect to see an organ grinder with a monkey waiting in the marble hallway when MPs arrive along with the smell of popcorn, peanuts and cotton candy. As a measure of where we are in the debate, I mused something to that effect online and it became the most retweeted thing I said out of the hearings last week.

I digress.

All of that to say: Commons committees are not the place if you are searching for clear, direct answers, particularly to complex questions. What they can be is instructive, politically instructive. And instructive about individuals.

It was clear the Conservatives are petrified of the auditor general, and their strained expressions of respect and admiration for the office could barely disguise that icy fear. Polling tells them that the AG is held in utter reverence by the public. It was after all the rock of Sheila Fraser against which the Liberal ship of state floundered.

Contrast that with the barely disguised contempt with which they treated the parliamentary budget officer, an institution of their own creation. Chris Alexander, the junior defence minister, tried out for the role of attack dog on the issue of cost, and what point on the production curve is most economical to buy. He was beaten over the head with details that seemed a couple steps ahead of his briefing notes. It was a performance that made you wince almost as much as the soliloquies of Liberal Gerry Byrne. The NDP kept the speeches short, but their questions seemed more focused on embarrassment rather than teasing out details and information.

There were some clarion moments, though and they seemed to come when you least expected them.

When asking about the long-term cost of maintenance, NDP MP Malcolm Allen hit what, as far as I'm concerned, is the real issue of the F-35 debate. He coaxed Deputy Defence Minister Rob Fonberg into confirming the claim that the stealth fighter would cost the same as the current CF-18s. A few chairs away sat the Assistant Deputy Minister of Material, the guy who would actually sign the paperwork. No, Dan Ross testified, the F-35 was always expected to cost more to maintain. The other moment came when the chief of the air staff stated that the stealth fighter was the only plane they were really considering, despite the prime minister's assurance in the theatre of question period that all options are on the table.

Never mind the fact the government called in the RCMP to investigate a supposed leak of F-35 information to the one of the most prominent publications in the country; the reason this debate has far reaching implications is more basic. If the public accepts such shameless contradictions with a straight face when so much money is at stake, then I would suggest we are truly lost.

Now it's time for two Advil.