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Tories defend shutting down probe into costly F-35 purchase

The Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is shown after it was unveiled in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, in this July 7, 2006, file photo.

Ron T. Ennis/AP

The Harper government plans to shut down the only public probe into Ottawa's fumbling of the F-35 fighter jet purchase, a controversy that has marred the Conservatives' reputation for fiscal stewardship.

The Tories are preparing to end hearings at the Commons public accounts committee into the Auditor-General's hard-hitting report on the acquisition of the increasingly costly fighter jets. It was the second chapter in the watchdog's spring report.

There are four weeks left on the parliamentary calendar before politicians quit Ottawa until September. Winding down the hearings now would enable the Conservatives to change the channel well before their MPs head out to face constituents this summer.

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The public accounts committee probed the F-35 for about nine hours in recent weeks.

Andrew Saxton, parliamentary secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, defended the move in the Commons, saying the Tories feel they've covered enough ground.

"We have heard from the Auditor-General three times: once for the report as a whole, once for the beginning of the chapter, and once at the end of the chapter," Mr. Saxton said. "We have heard from senior government officials at two different sets of meetings that detailed the government's response. We have heard from the Parliamentary Budget Officer to compare his numbers versus others."

The Conservatives, who dominate committees because they hold a majority of seats in the Commons, are expected to pass a motion Tuesday concluding the F-35 hearings.

"It is time to get on with writing the report," Mr. Saxton said.

NDP defence procurement critic Matthew Kellway accused the Tories of covering up their mistakes. "It's the role of this committee to ask questions," he said. "They pledged accountability and transparency, so why are they now stopping Parliament from getting to the bottom of the F-35 fiasco?"

In April, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported that the Department of National Defence gambled on the F-35 fighter jet without running a fair competition, while lacking cost certainty or any guarantee the plane could replace the current fleet of CF-18s by the end of the decade.

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His investigation found the plan to buy new jets was conducted in an unco-ordinated fashion among federal departments, with key data hidden from decision makers and parliamentarians.

The public accounts hearings later revealed the extent to which senior DND brass still believe they did little wrong in selecting a fighter without a competitive bidding process. Defence officials told MPs they feel the F-35 is the only fighter jet that meets Canada's needs for the future and rejected any notion the department offered misleading figures to the public on the cost of acquiring the aircraft.

Mr. Ferguson's tough report forced the Conservatives to effectively re-launch the process of buying the F-35s – a plane this government until recently embraced firmly, despite frustrating cost overruns and technical problems encountered by its U.S. manufacturer.

The F-35 case was the first time since the Tories took office in 2006 that the government has been required to take responsibility for such a serious financial stewardship blunder. The project to buy 65 stealth F-35 Lightning fighters is one of the single most expensive military procurements in Canadian history.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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