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Liberals' objection to fighter-jets deal puts high-calibre jobs at risk, industry warns

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.

Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The Canadian aerospace industry has entered the political fray to accuse the Liberal Party of putting high-quality jobs at risk by refusing to endorse the government's plans to purchase new stealth fighter jets.

The Harper government quickly joined in the attack, hoping to shame the Liberals into supporting the controversial $16-billion move to replace Canada's CF-18s near the end of the decade.

Gathered in Ottawa on Tuesday, the presidents of seven high-tech companies called on the opposition to get behind the government and approve the planned purchase of a fleet of 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35s.

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"We don't want to be in a situation where we have to tell employees … that they no longer have a job because of some political decision in Ottawa," said Paul Kalil, president of Avcorp Industries Inc.

While one participant pointed out that Canada is a democracy, another one said it is time for the political parties to come together on the file.

"We want all parties to support the government's decision because it is in the best interest of all Canadians," said Gregory Yeldon, president of Esterline CMC Electronics. "Canada needs to act now; any uncertainty or delay creates risk for jobs and risk for investment."

The Liberals refused to back down, saying the best way to buy the new jets would be through an open and competitive process, instead of the current sole-source procedure adopted by the government.

The purchase price for the F-35s is pegged at $9-billion, while maintenance costs over 20 years will be in the $5-billion to $7-billion range. Canadian aerospace companies are salivating at the thought of winning up to $12-billion of contracts on the major U.S.-led project.

But in the House of Commons, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff defended his position that a Liberal government would review the entire purchase process before coming to a final decision.

"The costs are skyrocketing, we are in the middle of a $54-billion [deficit] the bid was not competitive," Mr. Ignatieff said. "How can we go to a town hall anywhere in Canada and explain this choice to Canadians when there are so many other priorities that are pressing on hard-pressed Canadian families?"

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The Conservatives were emboldened by the high level of support from the private sector, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government was bringing "jobs and opportunity to the Canadian aerospace industry."

"What is the Leader of the Opposition seriously suggesting? Is he suggesting that we would simply ground the air force at the end of the CF-18?" Mr. Harper said during Question Period. "His policy makes no sense other than the political game."

The president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, which organized the news conference with the various company presidents, described the opposition parties' position as "political theatre."

"Political partisanship, posturing and opposition to the … acquisition must end," AIAC president Claude Lajeunesse said.

John Saabas, the president of Pratt & Whitney Canada, said the purchase has been discussed among allied nations as part of the Joint Strike Fighter project in the United States for a decade. "I think that the debate has already occurred," he said.

After company presidents had their say, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose told reporters she agreed on the need for unanimity on the file.

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"It's important for Parliament, for all of the opposition parties to support the government on this purchase because any kind of wavering or lack of decision on a purchase of this magnitude sends a bad signal to industry," she said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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