How Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are spinning the F-35 scandal
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews made a couple of major communications gaffes when he decided that the police should have access to people's Internet-browsing history without a warrant.
After introducing Bill C-30 in Parliament earlier this year, he accused his critics of siding with the child pornographers. This only served to galvanize his opponents, who launched a massive Internet campaign against the measure.
The following weekend, he went on Evan Solomon's CBC Radio show, The House, to defend himself.
In this interview, Toews revealed he wasn't aware that the bill allowed any police officer to ask an Internet service provider to turn over client information.
His remarks were repeatedly rebroadcast on CBC TV and radio newscasts, letting the country know that the mustachioed former prosecutor was ill-suited for his portfolio.
What's the moral of this story? If you're Prime Minister Stephen Harper, you don't want to let your cabinet ministers go on The House to discuss the latest scandal.
This weekend with the F-35 fighter-jet controversy swirling around the Conservatives, there was no cabinet minister to be heard on The House.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson's report singled out the Department of National Defence for lowballing the full cost of the fighter-jet program by $10 billion. The Ministry of Public Works was chastised for not providing proper oversight.
The two respective ministers, Peter MacKay and Rona Ambrose, went underground, leaving the parliamentary secretary to MacKay, Chris Alexander, to do the heavy lifting on The House.
Solomon grilled the former diplomat with well-researched questions, noting that MacKay had falsely claimed in 2010 that there was a "contract" to buy the fighter jets.
The CBC host also asked if the real issue was that the government claimed the cost was $15 billion during the 2011 election campaign when it was clear the price was $25 billion.
"I honestly don’t think that’s the real issue," Alexander replied. (It's worth noting that when people insert the word "honestly" into their responses—which Alexander did twice in the first minute of the interview—some experts believe this is a sign of a deceptive answer.)
MacKay was able to avoid the issue by skipping the interview. I wonder if he would have shown up had the producers said they would interview the NDP and Liberal defence critics in his place.
The prime minister's spin doctors probably knew that this wouldn't happen. So they got away with fobbing off Alexander on the program. This occurred even though he wasn't in politics when someone decided to fudge the numbers on the F-35 purchase.
Then to avoid looking like complete weasels, the government trotted out MacKay to do an interview with Kevin Newman on CTV's Question Period on Easter Sunday.
From the Conservatives' point of view, the timing was exquisite. Few people pay attention to the news on a major holiday. And CTV doesn't have a radio service, so it couldn't rebroadcast it to listeners on their Monday morning drive to work.
And because CBC sees CTV as an archrival, the Crown-owned broadcaster did not repeat MacKay's comments to its listeners this morning. The lead story last night on CBC's The National was the death of American journalist Mike Wallace—hardly an earth-shattering event when compared to MacKay's revelation on CTV that he knew about the $25-billion estimate two years ago.
Parliament is on a break for two weeks, which means MacKay won't have to answer any questions in the real Question Period.
His explanation to CTV—that the $10 billion was "sunk costs" as part of a difference in accounting—just doesn't wash.
Ferguson's report stated that the Department of National Defence's $25-billion estimate did not account for the cost of replacing aircraft, as well as any upgrades and the weaponry.
"Third, many costs are not yet reliably known or cannot yet be estimated," Ferguson also stated in the report. "These include the basic unit recurring flyaway cost of the aircraft, the cost of Canadian required modifications, and the cost of sustainment. In addition, National Defence is still developing its planning assumptions for operating the fleet. This involves hundreds of interrelated decisions about such matters as how pilot and technician training will be delivered, what physical infrastructure is required and what portion is directly attributable to the F-35, how maintenance and repair activities will be supported, and what they will cost."
MacKay, on the other hand, conveyed to reporters in 2010 that F-35 costs wouldn't rise—which contradicts Ferguson's conclusion that certain expenses weren't accounted for.
"At $9 billion, we don't anticipate that the cost per aircraft is going to go up," MacKay said in announcing the acquisition of Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft. "This is a bit complicated in the sense that the onboard sensors and weapons systems are included in that per aircraft cost."
He also talked a lot about a "contract" at that time, but now the prime minister is saying there is no contract.
At the six-minute mark of the video, Peter MacKay discusses the cost of F-35 jets.
The auditor general's report indicates that the real cost of buying and operating these jets will likely be much higher than $25 billion by the time all the cheques are signed. But by then, MacKay will have moved on to another ministry or, more likely, will be sitting on corporate boards of major defence contractors.
The future looks very bright for MacKay—no matter how much political hot water he appears to be in at the moment.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.