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Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan guesture during an interview November 18, 2015 at DND Headquarters in Ottawa. DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The first test of the new Liberal government's professed intention of giving a freer rein to its cabinet ministers appears to have arrived with comments from Harjit Sajjan, the Minister of Defence.

During the election campaign, Justin Trudeau announced that if he and his party formed the next government, the Canadian military's CF-18 fighter jets would not be replaced by F-35s, as the Conservatives had long planned. The money saved would go to the Royal Canadian Navy. The Liberal platform reiterated this point, saying that the primary mission of Canada's fighter aircraft would be to defend North America, "not a stealth first-strike capability." The message appeared to be unambiguous: The F-35 was cancelled.

After the election, however, Mr. Sajjan went to Iraq, where he spoke on a conference call. More than once, he was asked about the F-35 project, and whether it would be excluded from the competition for the new fighter jets.

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Twice, the Defence Minister avoided answering the question. Instead, he said, "My focus isn't about F-35, or any other aircraft. We will open it up to an open process, and from that, a decision will be made for a replacement of the CF-18." Two opens! So the Canadian F-35 is not entirely dead, after all.

A series of federal Canadian governments have struggled with what kind of aircraft the Canadian Forces need. The Auditor-General's report of 2012 concluded that the Department of Defence in the Conservative government had unwisely failed to clearly define its requirements for the project before it had implicitly committed itself to one supplier, Lockheed-Martin.

Mr. Sajjan, a Canadian Forces lieutenant-colonel who fought in Afghanistan, carries more weight than most on defence issues, and his Mackenzie-King-like ambiguity on the planes may or may not reflect his personal opinions. Then again, some Mackenzie-Kingesque thinking on fighter jets may be in order. It made as little sense to outright reject the F-35 as it did to sole-source embrace it. The F-35 if necessary, but not necessarily the F-35.

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