OTTAWA—Canada’s auditor general has both National Defence and Public Works in his sights when it comes to the troubled F-35 stealth fighter program, say senior government sources.
A draft copy of the scathing review, circulating in Ottawa for weeks, suggests the air force didn’t do its pricing homework and government officials failed to follow procurement rules.
It’s not clear whether the language will be toned down in the final report, Michael Ferguson’s first as auditor general, when it’s released April 3.
The Conservative government has insisted the entire purchase and support costs will be between $14 billion and $16 billion, making the jets the largest defence purchase in Canadian history.
But the budget officer and critics have challenged that, delivering estimates of up to $29.5 billion.
It is important to note no final decision on purchasing the multi-role fighter has yet been made, despite of the Harper Government’s rhetoric on the subject.
Julian Fantino, the minister in charge of defence procurement, gave a similar message to the House of Commons defence committee last week, and went further by saying that Ottawa reserves the right to bail on the multibillion-dollar program.
Senior officials say the auditor general’s harsh review is behind the Harper government’s change in posture over the last few weeks, where a hard-line message of commitment has softened into skepticism about the international program, which is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
The Conservative government’s plan has been to buy 65 of the radar-evading jets.
But there is apparently growing frustration within the military that it is going “wear” the criticisms of the auditor’s report.
One senior official noted the air force didn’t have to make a decision on replacing its 1980s-built CF-18s for a few years and that the 2010 announcement was all about positioning business and the aerospace sector for F-35 contracts.
Liberal defence critic John McKay said he finds the potential criticism of Public Works to be most troubling.
“They are, in effect, the watchdog of the procurement process,” McKay said.
“Just because you haven’t signed a contract doesn’t mean that you’re not in a procurement process.”
Alan Williams, a former senior procurement official, said the absence of a contract is irrelevant and added the important principle of civilian control over the military is at stake with the F-35 program.
He said the air force has run roughshod over the defence establishment and dictated what it wants and if civilians don’t challenge it, the system is called into question.
The Conservatives, he said, have no one to blame but themselves for the political back-peddling.
“The poor taxpayer has every right to question what the heck is going on here,” he said.
“The government’s strident (tone) and scorn for opposition from any source, whether it’s MPs or whether it’s from the (Parliamentary Budget Officer) or whatever, essentially precludes any kind of reasoned dialogue.”