Pundits on the F-35 fiasco

Who's in charge of this thing? Conservative ministers search for the culprit in the F-35 boondoggle.

Prominent media commentators and pundits weigh in on the F-35 procurement fiasco:

David Akin, “Fighter jet fiasco now boondoggle,” Ottawa Sun, 3 April 2012:

There’s no question, Harper, MacKay, et al. fouled up when it came to playing politics with the F-35. And in the sense that the buck stops with the defence minister and ultimately the prime minister, they must wear a good deal of the blame for this boondoggle.

As [Auditor General Michael] Ferguson said Tuesday on Sun News Network, “Throughout a whole process like this it’s incumbent on anybody involved, whether they be a bureaucrat or they be a minister, to make sure that they are asking the right questions and they are part of that whole due diligence process.”

Tim Harper, “F-35 fighter jet planning a game of fun with figures,” Toronto Star, 3 April 2012:

As Auditor General Michael Ferguson laid out details of how the country’s largest military purchase had become a fantasy featuring rejigged requirements, buried costs and bureaucratic smoke-and-mirrors, one question kept recurring.

Where was Peter MacKay?

It was clear that the brass at national defence didn’t bother to keep their minister in the loop, so blinded were they to that shiny object in the showroom.

But there is nothing in the cabinet minister handbook preventing a few questions being asked, or some assurances sought.

How about poking your head in the door to check from time to time on the biggest expenditure of taxpayers dollars you have ever overseen?

Instead, MacKay looked like a tourist on a magic bus of broken rules and financial sleight-of-hand, getting off just in time to announce the government’s decision to buy the F-35s in July 2010 — before anyone had even formally bothered to make up a phony rationale for sole-sourcing the contract.

MacKay wasn’t alone. Where was his predecessor, Gordon O’Connor, the public works minister, Rona Ambrose and, more recently, MacKay’s sidekick at defence, the daily, droning face of the project, Julian Fantino?

John Ivison, “Auditor-General’s report shows flaw in Tories’ reflex to never retreat or apologize,” National Post, 3 April 2012:

The saving grace for the Conservatives is that Gordon O’Connor and Mr. MacKay, the defence ministers on whose watch these procedural abuses occurred, were made to look like stooges, rather than complicit.

Andrew Coyne, “F-35 debacle demonstrates a system of government in collapse,” Postmedia News, 4 April 2012:

This was, until last year’s shipbuilding contract, the largest single purchase in the country’s history. And yet it was carried out, as we now learn, without proper documentation, without accurate data, and without any of the normal procurement rules being followed. Defence officials simply decided in advance which aircraft they wanted, and that was that. Guidelines were evaded, Parliament was lied to, and in the end the people of Canada were set to purchase planes that may or may not be able to do the job set out for them, years after they were supposed to be delivered, at twice the promised cost.

But of course it’s much worse than that. If department officials played two successive ministers of defence, Gordon O’Connor and Peter MacKay, for fools, the evidence shows they did not have to exert themselves much; if they did not offer evidence to back their claims, whether on performance, costs, or risks, it is because ministers did not think to ask for any.

Michael Harris, “Holy parliamentary democracy, Batman! What about ministerial responsibility?iPolitics, 4 April 2012:

This is the most disgraceful damage control in Canadian history – and another test of how gullible Canadians have become. The Harper government, which has squeezed every drop of political benefit out of Canada’s military, has now thrown DND under the bus. Not a single, cheerleading member of the government will be walking the plank, in part because the Auditor-General was too timorous to make a finding on the signal issue of who bears responsibility for this mess. Consider this: for several years, Peter MacKay has earned his government pay-cheque for climbing in and out of the cockpit of the F-35 while the shutters clicked. He told stretchers about how much the plane would cost. The government says he and others were misled.

Holy parliamentary democracy Batman, what about the doctrine of ministerial responsibility? If a government department deceives the people, who but the minister is ultimately responsible? In that lovely phrase in the law, MacKay knew or ought to have known what was going on under his watch – particularly when he was chief pitchman for this travesty of sound management and democratic practice. The fact that he failed on both counts ought to be a hanging offence. …

In a just political universe, Peter MacKay would have had his last helicopter ride, Rona Ambrose would have overseen her last project, and Julian Fantino would have stumbled over his last set of screamingly funny speaking notes. In MacKay’s case he has not only led the chorus of those who would have Canadians believe that everything was hunky-dory with this project, he is also the minister whose story changed from week to week on matters of momentous importance. This was the guy who told Parliament that there would be a competition before Canada chose a replacement aircraft for the F-18, and then just a few days later announced with a straight face that the government had chosen the F-35.

John Ibbitson, “Tories’ economic reputation shot to pieces by fighter jets,” Globe and Mail, 4 April 2012:

A government that promotes itself as a responsible steward of the economy has bungled the biggest and most important contract on its watch. A Prime Minister who practically branded criticism of the F-35 acquisition as treasonous must now deeply regret, and will have to eat, his words.

And critics have fresh and powerful ammunition when asking why Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget slashes government programs and downsizes the public service even as the Conservatives commit tens of billions of dollars to buying warplanes without knowing what they’re getting for the money.

Jeff Jedras, “Blame Peter MacKay for the F-35 mess,” National Post, 4 April 2012:

The AG’s report puts much responsibility at the feet of DND, and rightly so. They wanted the F-35, period, and they did their best to ensure that’s what would happen. And the AG’s role is to audit departments, not assign political blame. But the blame absolutely must be put at the feet of Defence Minister Peter MacKay and this Conservative government.

Of course bureaucrats are going to try to get their way, and of course the military is going to try to get shiny new toys. It’s the job of the minister and the government to provide adult supervision, to weigh the priorities of DND against those of other departments, to put their wish list in the larger context, and balance likes with needs and what’s necessary to get the job done. And it’s not like this government is in the business of blindly following the advice of the bureaucracy: if that was the case, Munir Sheikh would still be running Statistics Canada.

No, DND and the Conservatives were willing partners here. DND wanted the coolest jet, and the government wanted to be seen as pro-military and to use it as a wedge by labelling any people who raised legitimate concerns as anti-military. Which is ironic, with the “support the troops” government now hiding behind DND in the wake of the AG’s report.

This whole boondoggle could have been avoided if the government had ever, for five minutes, just stopped demonizing critics and instead listened to and considered their criticisms.

Brian Stewart, “The F-35 fiasco and Ottawa’s culture of secrecy,” CBC News, 4 April 2012:

The who-knew-what about the real costs of the F-35 fighter jet Canada wants to purchase is worrisome enough. But at the heart of the fiasco is a far more serious concern about what public honesty means to this government.

It’s a sad state that few Canadians appear surprised by the auditor general’s findings that Parliament was kept in the dark over the real costs of this program and what looks to be a $10-billion overrun.

Many seem to assume that misleading and denying whenever it suits is a government’s normal default position. After all, this government seems to have done it for years on Afghanistan and with its other problems in national defence.

Peter Worthington, “F-35 purchase on the radar,” QMI Agency, 4 April 2012:

…the monkey business over Canada committing (sort of) to the hugely expensive F-35s without competitive bids as “the only acceptable plane,” stinks to high heaven.

If it’s the “only acceptable plane,” what’s to fear from competitive bids?

Over budgeted, over-advertised and under performing, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson has taken aim at the whole business. He’s clearly disgusted (but not surprised) that DND mislead, fibbed, withheld info from Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who’s the one who should be really sore at DND.

The public, too, has reason to be upset. DND always does this — and no one ever is fired for it.

Michael Den Tandt, “A-G shreds Harper’s fig leaf of deniability on F-35 debacle,” Postmedia News, 5 April 2012:

To call this a colossal, monumental bungle is an understatement. As things stood before Thursday, the Harper government had few defenders on this file. Indeed it was not even really bothering to defend itself, hewing to the ancient Canadian tradition of taking one’s spanking when the auditor general comes calling, no matter how sharp the sting, drying one’s tears and moving on.

But if the inner cabinet knew, as Ferguson suggests, that DND’s numbers were way low, even as they demonized the parliamentary budget officer, whose pre-election cost estimate of $30-billion now turns out to have been right or much closer to the truth, and as they taunted the opposition, and as they insisted, week after week, that it was all about doing what’s best for our brave men and women in uniform?

If that’s true then they will have no defenders, anywhere. Cabinet-level resignations yes, as a starting point. But it’s bigger than that. The government itself will be discredited. There is no moving on from a lie this big.

Lawrence Martin, “The PM needs a cabinet overhaul,” iPolitics Insight, 5 April 2012:

Is anyone surprised?

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the chicanery involved in the Defence Department’s handling of the Afghan detainees’ file might well have expected the same type of thing was going on with regard to the fighter jets.

The Auditor-General’s devastating report on the handling of the gazillion dollar F-35 project comes as yet another bristling example of ethical malfeasance that before long – especially with electoral fraud allegations piling up – could reach the breaking point.

Rex Murphy, “Peter MacKay and the F-35 Controversy,” CBC News, 5 April 2012:

Is anyone in charge? Or is Peter MacKay a kind of Honorary Defence Minister? The beauty of honorary positions is that you get the rank and the privileges of High Office – staff, limos, entourage, lodges – but you’re not really responsible for anything.

The helicopters pick you up, you go to all the big-buzz meetings (lovely group photos), but if something falls apart, or looks like it is about to – well, you’re just an honorary, a seat-warmer with status, like Peter MacKay.

He’s Canada’s Defence Minister – he’s a big man at the cabinet table, he’s next to being as powerful as Stephen Harper himself. Except when anything goes wrong. Like F-35 costs, procurement, projections or anything to do with any of these. Then he’s just Peter MacKay – Honorary Defence Minister — an ornament, not an engine. Do I need to point out that a real minister would resign after this week’s sad comedy? …

If Stephen Harper were in Opposition now and it was Liberals who bought about this mess he would be heaving thunderbolts and breathing righteous fire about ‘arrogant and incompetent Liberals.’ and he would be right. But, you know Liberals and Conservatives are more like twins in this stuff than either of them can bear to acknowledge.

Mal-administration, stonewalling and feigned ignorance – a trinity of evasion such as the Auditor General revealed this week – would demand a resignation from any government with a conscience. Or, where ministers were more than just ornaments.

And, finally, Matthew Fisher can stand it no longer and rides to the defence of the beleaguered F-35…

Matthew Fisher, “Let’s put the F-35 debate in perspective,” Postmedia News, 6 April 2012:

…the overriding question remains: Does or doesn’t Canada need a replacement for the CF-18s and if so, what performance should that replacement aircraft be capable of?

Unfortunately, sometimes ridiculously exaggerating what the AG had to say, politicians and other critics conflate these two, using the bureaucracy’s and the government’s handling of the procurement to question the need for the fifth generation F-35 itself.

Let’s live in the real world. Unless Canada decides drastically to change its defence strategy and becomes pacifist and isolationist, we will continue, as we have done for a century, to commit ourselves to military alliances and partnerships to further our national interests. To be worthy allies and partners we have to be more than peacekeepers uttering platitudes — the bulwark of the Liberal defence strategy for years. …

There is no competition to be had if you want stealth and a networked capability because there are no other western aircraft being produced now that have this. It is THAT simple. The justification the U.S., Japan and most of their western European allies have accepted is that China and Russia are rushing to catch up with fifth-generation warplanes of their own. Looking out 20 or 30 years, it is hardly a stretch to see how the Chinese or Russians might one day pose a military threat to Canada or Canadian interests.

Photo credit: DND

Tags: Andrew Coyne, Auditor-General, Brian Stewart, Canadian military spending, david Akin, F-35, Jeff Jedras, John Ibbitson, John Ivison, Lawrence Martin, Matthew Fisher, Michael Den Tandt, Michael Ferguson, Military procurement, Peter MacKay, Peter Worthington, Rex Murphy, Tim Harper