OTTAWA --- National Defence received a slap on the wrist Wednesday for its handling of the F-35 stealth fighter program after a parliamentary committee studying the $25-billion project called for more transparency and accountability going forward.
But the committee stopped short of laying any blame for what Auditor General Michael Ferguson found was a determined effort by defence officials to twist rules, downplay problems and withhold information to ensure Canada purchased the plane.
Opposition parties are now accusing the Conservative government of trying to sweep years of misinformation and questionable decision-making under the rug even as it continues moving ahead on plans to buy the F-35.
“When you compare the final [committee] report to the auditor general’s report, it’s nothing but one great big whitewash,” said NDP MP Malcolm Allen.
“We were hoping to see that Canadians would really find out the whole truth of what actually transpired and this government would then take responsibility for its actions on this file.”
The public accounts committee had been studying the government’s management of the F-35 program since the auditor general released a scathing report on the program in April.
Its final report, tabled in the House of Commons on Wedneday, is the culmination of seven hours of testimony from Ferguson, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and senior bureaucrats from National Defence, Industry Canada and Public Works.
Ferguson and Page noted serious problems with how senior departmental officials decided upon the F-35 to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s in 2010, including skirting established rules and presenting only best-case scenarios.
They also said Cabinet knew weeks before the 2011 federal election that the fighter would cost Canada at least $25 billion — $10 billion more than what Canadians were being told.
But the senior bureaucrats disputed their findings and questioned their conclusions before Conservative committee members used their majority numbers to end the hearings after seven hours, prompting outrage from the opposition.
It’s nothing but one great big whitewash
The final report takes note of many of the problems identified by Ferguson and Page, including the National Defence’s failure to report the program’s full $25-billion price tag and the department’s optimism on when the F-35s will be delivered.
But the report does not identify why these problems occurred, or who is to blame.
Rather, it recommends that the government should take a number of actions, such as tabling independently verified cost estimates for the stealth fighter, by Feb. 7, 2013. Most of the recommendations are already part of the government’s response to Ferguson’s April report.
Not only did the report fall short of explaining to Canadians how they were misled on the F-35, Allen said, but none of the recommendations includes pushing the reset button to determine whether the stealth fighter is the best aircraft for Canada.
There have been allegations the Harper government remains committed to buying the F-35 despite its insistence that other possible replacements for the country’s CF-18 fighters are being considered.
Those concerns were bolstered over the weekend when Defence Minister Peter MacKay refused to say whether the government is actually looking at other options.
Click here for the Standing Committee’s report (HTML format) on the Canadian House of Commons website.