06/13/2012 05:58 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Former auditor general among independent experts to oversee F-35 reset

OTTAWA - A former auditor general is one of two independent panellists appointed to oversee the redesign of Canada's troubled plan to buy the F-35 stealth fighter.

Denis Desautels, who served as spending watchdog from 1991 to 2001, was named to the agency that's been created to verify whether the radar-evading jet is the right choice for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The current auditor general, Michael Ferguson, set off a political firestorm this spring with a report that accused National Defence of hiding the true cost of the multibillion-dollar program and said Public Works did not follow proper procedures.

The fallout from the report has tarnished the Harper government's carefully crafted fiscal credentials.

The creation of a review secretariat, under Public Works, and now the appointment of Desautels is seen as an attempt to retrieve that credibility.

Historian and economics professor Kenneth Norrie has also been appointed to the oversight body by Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.

Ambrose said she's pleased to have both of them aboard.

"Their considerable experience providing informed, independent points of view on matters of public policy is welcome and will result in additional due diligence in support of the project," Ambrose said in a statement.

At the same time as she announced the makeup of the secretariat, Ambrose confirmed it will be the fall before the public gets a look at the latest price tag estimate for the multi-role fighter, which is still in the development phase.

Arguments about the cost per aircraft have dominated the F-35 debate since the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report in March 2011 that suggested the total program could be almost double what the Harper government had projected.

The Conservatives and the air force have maintained they would pay $75 million for each aircraft — and stuck to that line until just recently when the figure was bumped to $85 million.

Others, including parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, have suggested a much higher sticker price, up to $150 million per aircraft, depending on the year the plane is purchased.

Defence planners have been given a look at the new projected price for the F-35 by the Pentagon, which is co-ordinating foreign military sales.

But the secretariat says it needs more time to study the numbers provided by defence and wants to audit the full life-cycle cost of the aircraft, including maintenance and operational expenses — something Ferguson also criticized.

The secretariat will be led by a committee of senior public servants, including the deputy ministers of Public Works and Defence.