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Peter MacKay gets a wingman on military procurement

Peter MacKay shakes hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper after being sworn in again as Minister of Defence at Rideau Hall on May 18, 2011.


Peter MacKay has to share his Defence portfolio with Julian Fantino now, a move revealed in a cabinet reorganization that's fuelled speculation about his relationship with Stephen Harper.

It's no secret that Mr. MacKay, who once led the Progressive Conservative Party, is not exactly best friends with the Prime Minister. Indeed, he has been gradually losing his powers.

After the 2008 election, the regional development agency he headed, ACOA, was taken away. And then at Wednesday's swearing-in, Mr. MacKay found himself still at the helm of the Department of National Defence but with a seemingly lesser role after Mr. Fantino was named Associate Minister of Defence.

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Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's director of communications, explained that Mr. Fantino - the former top cop in Toronto and Ontario - will be responsible for defence procurement. It's a huge responsibility given the National Defence budget is about $22-billion and between 14 and 16 per cent is for procurement.

Later, however, Mr. MacKay made it very clear he still remains the chief, telling reporters that Mr. Fantino reports to him.

"He'll be reporting up through me on these procurement files and Julian has tremendous experience within a chain of command, as you know, having worked in law enforcement," Mr. MacKay said.

Steven Staples, a defence specialist who is president of the Rideau Institute, says this new appointment could be a "good thing" as it makes someone "responsible for minding the store on all this."

The left-leaning think tank argues there needs to be greater ministerial accountability on defence procurement. "If this puts it in one person's hands that's not necessarily a bad thing," Mr. Staples said.

He notes that defence procurement is currently handled by three different government officials: the defence minister, who deals with the requirements; the public-works minister, who handles the procurement process; and the industry minister, who looks at the offsets or the investment requirement in Canada.

"When something goes wrong they can all go, 'well it's his fault or her fault,'" Mr. Staples complained. For this reason, the Rideau Institute has said the buck should stop with the defence minister.

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In addition to the assigning a new minister, Mr. Staples argues that there should be a Commons committee or sub-committee looks only at military procurement. "All they do is monitor the progress of procurement. And then at certain points when cost schedules go up alarms go off and people are invited in to explain the cost overruns."

He theorized that Mr. Fantino was given this new role to "reset the debate" over the F-35 jet purchase. So far, he noted, only Mr. MacKay's parliamentary secretary, former fighter pilot Laurie Hawn, has been out there defending the controversial deal that the Liberals had tried to make into an election issue.

"We haven't seen MacKay really do much on it since he climbed into the cockpit last July and Hawn has been out there strafing all his critics," Mr. Staples said. "... I've felt it go up the backside of me on more than one occasion."

So where does this leave Mr. MacKay?

Mr. Staples suggested he will be overseeing the operational side, which may be reduced because "they are also projecting there is going to be an operational pause so that we will see a little less missions going on."

He mused that this actually could be a plum for Mr. MacKay, who could then travel around and announce major contracts "particularly in places like Atlantic Canada, which heavily rely on defence spending."

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That leaves Mr. Fantino with a potential "hot potato," given the number of costly projects he will have to defend. On top of the F-35 stealth jets, there's about $12-billion for frigates and Arctic offshore patrol vessels in the offing.

Perhaps Mr. MacKay won't mind sharing.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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