Since taking power in 2006, Canada’s Conservative Party has worked hard to portray itself as the party of sound fiscal practice. All of that went up in smoke earlier this month, as an independent audit confirmed that the costs of stealth fighter jets within the national defense budget had ballooned from $16 billion to nearly $46 billion.
In the House of Commons, the Conservative political class had dodged questions about the cost of these jets for about 18 months. Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor General, blasted this fiscal mismanagement in a scathing spring report, blaming officials in the ministry of national defense for the spiraling costs and keeping the facts from ministers. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, put the price tag of the undisclosed funds at around $30 billion.
The Auditor General’s report did spark some action from the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper but the government never acknowledged the costs had run out of control. It froze spending on aircraft procurement and stripped the responsibility for the acquisition of these planes away from the military, handing it instead to a secretariat in the public works department. The military brass was enthralled by fifth-generation F-35 fighter planes, refusing to consider any others. The government, it would seem, never questioned the numbers nor dared to ask the hard questions.
The government could have spared itself some hardship by coming clean on the costs of the plane after a leaked audit report on December 7 hinted of a hefty price tag. But instead, a nervous Peter MacKay, Canada’s defense minister, refused to take responsibility for the bungling of the file when grilled by reporters. A week later, the full audit report was released on December 13 and put the cost and maintenance of 65 F-35 fighter jets at $46 billion over 42 years, and not $16 billion as stated by the Tories. The public was initially told it would cost $9 billion.