OTTAWA - Cabinet ministers would have known the true cost of buying new fighter jets was much higher than the numbers they were using publicly, the auditor general suggested Thursday.
Michael Ferguson's remarks tossed cold water on the Conservatives' attempts to blame the F-35 foul up on bureaucrats providing bad information.
The Opposition charged the Tories were trying to have it both ways: agreeing with the auditor general's report on a bungled procurement process, while accepting no responsibility or paying any heed to the idea Parliament was misled.
Ferguson's report this week into how the government is buying planes to replace aging CF-18 fighters found that neither defence or public works officials exercised due diligence or enough oversight.
They also buried the true cost, saying in public that the planes were going to cost around $14 billion when they knew the price tag was closer to $25 billion.
Ferguson raised concerns that Parliament was misled as a result.
But it wasn't just bureaucrats, Ferguson told reporters Thursday in comments now sure to dominate the spring session of Parliament.
"I can't speak to individuals who knew it, but it was information that was prepared within National Defence," Ferguson said, "and it's certainly my understanding that that would have been information that, yes, the government would have had."
When pressed, he said by government, he meant the executive — that is, the Conservative cabinet.
According to Ferguson's report, the government would have had that information in hand a year before the Parliamentary Budget Office's March 2011 study, which also suggested the cost of the planes was $25 billion.
It was that review that in part prompted last spring's federal election as the minority Conservative government fell on a contempt motion connected to their refusal to release the full cost of the planes.
The Conservatives dismissed the budget office's study as bad math, but they did accept the auditor general's, even though Public Works and Defence said they didn't agree with his conclusions.
In response, all project spending has been frozen and the government has announced a new oversight mechanism for the F-35 procurement — an inter-departmental secretariat of deputy ministers to oversee the project.
Without doing a full analysis of their plans, it's impossible to know whether they'll right the problems, Ferguson told MPs on Thursday.
"On first glance, it appears to be steps in the right direction," he said.
The Conservatives used those words to rebut calls by the Opposition that they should take responsibility for the F-35 fiasco and noted that the auditor general had also said that no money had gone missing.
The government has not signed an actual contract with the U.S. to buy the F-35s. But it has invested $335 million so far to meet various commitments over the 15-year history of the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter initiative.
They Conservatives also claimed they'd also been misled by the bureaucracy.
"As a government, as ministers, as cabinet, we have a right and expectation that the advice we receive is something on which we can rely," House Leader Peter Van Loan said.
"And that is something that in this case, the auditor general made some findings on. We happen to agree with those findings in the end."
They are trying to have it both ways, claimed interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
Accepting the report's conclusions on the actions of the bureaucracy means the government must also accept that Parliament was misled, said Rae.
And they can't agree the House was misled and do nothing about it, said Rae in calling on the Speaker to declare his privileges as an MP violated as a result.
"We cannot have a Parliament without truth and without consequences," Rae said.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said at the very least, Defence Minister Peter MacKay should be removed from his post.
"But more fundamentally now we're looking at an attempt by the government to whitewash a situation where they intentionally gave false information to Parliament," he said.
But with the House of Commons now on break for the next two weeks, all sides will have some time to cool their jets on the issue.
The NDP said they'd like to make a fuller argument on Rae's request to the Speaker when the Commons resumes sitting later this month.
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