No F-35 Scandal? Yes, Minister

I’ve always thought that studying law is a good preparation for our elected representatives. Having myself emerged from this indoctrination, it seemed to me that honing one’s ability to identify a central issue, evaluate evidence, and understand how our parliamentary democracy works is fundamental to governing.

But then along comes someone like Peter MacKay – lawyer and Conservative cabinet minister extraordinaire – who shows a complete disrespect for parliamentary democracy. Notably, MacKay refuses to resign for his department’s, and his own, failings in this F-35 scandal.

In his magisterial book, Democratic Government in Canada, R. MacGregor Dawson explained that a minister’s role is not to work the department, but to see that it is worked. Because a minister answers to Parliament for all the department’s doings, he or she has the right to intervene at any level and remove public servants for wrongdoing. However, “answering to Parliament” also means accepting responsibility for your own missteps and, if those missteps are serious, resigning.

But not in MacKay’s world. Even given the very low standards of ministerial responsibility in the Harper government, MacKay’s egregious abdication of responsibility contravenes the very basis of our system. As columnist and commentator Rex Murphy has said, the cavalier way in which MacKay ignored his role invites the conclusion that he has just been an honorary minister of defence all along, accepting all of the perks but none of the duties of ministerial rank.

Related: The Story of Peter MacKay and His Helicopter

The propaganda being unleashed by the government would have us believe that criticizing the enormous ethical and factual failures of this department, minister, and, indeed, government, is “playing politics with the lives of our men and women in uniform.” And, the government seems to argue, since little money has yet been spent on the F-35, where’s the harm?

Little money? Over the past 15 years, Canada has invested $335 million in the project.

But there’s more to it than that. In June 2010, when Peter MacKay announced Canada’s plan to purchase 65 F-35s, he told Canadians that the decision had been made after a rigorous examination of their merits, and of the merits of competing planes. And when the opposition called for full disclosure of the details, including the costs, the government refused to oblige, and then called an election to avoid being declared in contempt of Parliament.

To make things worse, the auditor-general has revealed that the department and some ministers knew, at that time, that the published figures for the contract’s cost were $10 billion too low. And MacKay has just admitted that he knew about the $10 billion in extra project costs two years ago. There’s no way around it: Canadians were deceived. Yet the Harper government doesn’t see why this is such a big deal. After all, we’re not really committed to this undertaking (downgraded from what was earlier presented as “a contract”), so what’s the problem?

The problem is that we only know about the discrepancy because the government got caught. It wasn’t the government that released the true figures – it was the auditor-general. Left to its own devices, the Harper government would have slid this incompetently managed undertaking through the greasy corridors of power without telling Canadians anything. And the auditor-general’s report seems to confirm as much:

Key decisions were made without required approvals or supporting documentation. [...] In our view, many of the steps and documents used to support the government’s 2010 decision were of little consequence, because the key questions of whether to procure the F-35 and whether to run a competition were effectively determined by decisions taken much earlier, calling into question the integrity of the process.

Even if MacKay had “merely” blundered by failing to oversee his department’s machinations that misled the cabinet, I guarantee that under 90 per cent of previous governments, he would already have walked the plank. But now that MacKay has admitted that he knew about the extra $10 billion, that benign interpretation of his role in all this won’t fly anyway. Heaven forbid that a cabinet minister be accused of lying, but I think it’s safe to say that MacKay is at least guilty of what in the House is called a “terminological inexactitude.”

Related: Tory Deficits and the Austerity Budget Ruse

We really shouldn’t be surprised by this morally oblivious minister’s conduct. After all, this is the same man who won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in 2003 because he agreed there would be no merger with the Canadian Alliance, and then, some months later, reneged and negotiated that exact merger.

Now, after irrefutable evidence of departmental and ministerial chicanery in the F-35 affair, MacKay has not yet disciplined his officials or even apologized for his own fecklessness. The government seems to be saying, “Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.”

It seems MacKay’s legal education didn’t do him any good: He has failed to properly evaluate the evidence and uphold the merits of our parliamentary democracy. Having been involved in such blatant misrepresentations of data, he should take responsibility for his actions and resign. And even if Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not culpable for the mess up to now, if he continues to show misplaced loyalty to this catastrophic minister of national defence instead of to the taxpayers and electors of Canada, he should go, too.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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