Canadian Manufacturing

Letters show deep divide between auditor and DND over F-35 procurement

DND and Public Works tried to have report changed before being made public.

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have accepted the auditor general’s scathing criticism of the troubled F-35 program, but newly released documents show National Defence and Public Works had deep disagreements with Michael Ferguson’s findings.

The final draft of the bombshell report, which accused the departments of hiding the true cost of the multibillion-dollar project, was the subject of a flurry of behind-the-scenes letters and protests last winter.

As is standard practice, the auditor general’s office shared its report ahead of time with National Defence for review before it was made public—and the department’s top bureaucrat fired back.

“While we are generally satisfied with the accuracy of the facts as presented in your report, we disagree with your conclusion that National Defence did not exercise due diligence in managing the replacement for the CF-18s,” deputy defence minister Robert Fonberg wrote on Feb. 7, 2012, less than two months before the report was released.

The exchange of letters was obtained by the Opposition New Democrats under the Access to Information Act.

As senior government and military officials pored over every line of the report, the head of the Royal Canadian Air Force took issue with the absence-of-due-diligence claim, labelling the auditor’s finding as a “misleading statement.”

A followup letter on Feb. 24, 2012, signed by both Fonberg and public works deputy minister Francois Guimont, asked the auditor to “present a more balanced story” and wanted Ferguson to point to “specific laws, policies, and/or regulations” that had been violated.

When it was tabled in Parliament last April, the auditor general’s report caused a political firestorm that burned throughout the spring.

The government took the project away from the Defence Department and gave it to an independent secretariat under the direction of Public Works. It promised more oversight, fresh cost estimates and that it would consider “all options” to replace the CF-18s.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said the government accepts the facts, but not the judgment of the auditor general.

“DND accepts nothing that the auditor said,” Harris said Tuesday.

One of the biggest criticisms of the program was the fact that the air force did not finalize its written statement of requirements for a replacement aircraft until just before the Harper government announced its intention to buy the F-35 in July 2010.

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