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From F-35s to F-bombs: A week of backdowns for Harper's government

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For the Harper government 'tis the season, it would seem, for backing down.

The Prime Minister has said that his government will not follow through on some scary recommendations of its hand-picked "Firearms Advisory Committee."

That Committee is composed entirely of gun advocates and gun users. The Chiefs of Police are not even represented.

The Coalition for Gun Control and the Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles made public some of the Committee’s more extreme recommendations, which include making handguns and assault weapons more accessible.

The opposition asked the PM about that in the House.

Uncharacteristically, Prime Minister Harper solemnly told Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae that his Government would now seriously consider the Liberal's suggestion about including the Chiefs of Police in future deliberations on this issue.

The next shoe to drop on guns and related law-and-order controversies could very well be for the battered and bruised Public Security Minister Vic Toews to move on to "other professional challenges."

Who was it who crossed the floor wagging his finger?

The second Conservative on the holiday season back-down list is Government House Leader Peter Van Loan. He, of course, actually apologized for his now infamous F-bombing and finger wagging verbal assault on NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen.

As with the gun matter, this too seemed to be a case of prime ministerial intervention.

The initial Conservative reaction to Van Loan's outburst was to try to turn the tables on the NDP and somehow put all the blame on Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair for defending Cullen.

Conservative MPs tried mightily to make this into yet another example of the opposition leader's notional "anger control" problem.

Unfortunately for the government side hit men, who paraded to the microphones with their angry Mulcair version of events, this time the camera caught pretty much the whole thing.

It was not Tom Mulcair who marched across the House floor and shook his finger at his opposite number.

And it wasn't Mulcair who had to be pried away by a still fit and trim Peter Mckay, before there was a near bar-room brawl.

Not helpful to peace

The third Conservative in the back-down party is Foreign Minister John Baird.

He, finally, said that Israel's building new settlements in the vicinity of East Jerusalem would "not be helpful" to the peace process.

Baird's original reaction to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s threat to build new settlements, in retaliation for the recent vote UN vote of partial statehood for Palestine, was to say that "unilateral" actions by either side were unwelcome.

On the UN vote, Canada stood with nine other member states, including the United States.

On the threatened new settlements, however, Canada was virtually alone -- even the United States had condemned the settlement threat -- until Baird's back-down and "adjustment" of the Canadian position.

Cost of fighters: from under $15 billion to $40 billion

But the biggest backdown of all is on the fighter jet, the F-35.

The true cost of that military marvel is now, it appears, a whopping $40 billion -- considerably more than double the original government figure.

Just a little more than two years ago, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said F-35s would cost under $15 billion.

The Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) both subsequently said that figure was way out of line.

The PBO, Kevin Page, with his small staff and scant resources, came up with a figure of $30 billion, for which the government shamelessly attacked his integrity.

It now appears the government's favourite whipping boy had actually underestimated the cost.

It is being widely reported that a study the government commissioned from accounting firm KPMG will peg the cost at ten billion more than Page's estimate.

And so, Harper's goverment seems to be in full retreat on the fighter jet purchase, and will now open the process to bids from companies other than Lockheed Martin which manufactures the F-35.

We should remember that the Prime Minister started backing down on this matter when he took the dossier away from the Defence Minister and gave it to Public Works and Government Services Minister Rona Ambrose.

The "reset" button

Just this past Thursday, in the House, Ambrose was still defending her government's "reset" of this purchase.

Note, however, that the Public Works Minister talks about establishing, for the first time since the purchase process began, a measure of "transparency" -- as though the idea of transparency is something this government just discovered.  

Here's how it went.

West Quebec NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat (who defeated the Foreign Minister in the last election) told the House on Thursday that "the Prime Minister and the cabinet were informed of all the developments on the F-35s, including the cost overruns and technical problems, and were even aware that the process was biased in favour of Lockheed Martin."

He then added that Defence Minister Peter MacKay had "said many times that the F-35 was the only appropriate fighter jet. He should immediately apologize for having hidden this information," and tried to get the MacKay to answer the question: "What other options are being looked at to replace the CF-18s?"

MacKay sat in his place, silent.

Rona Ambrose stood up and replied: "I think the best way to deal with this is to enhance transparency and push reset on this process, which is exactly what the government has done. .. This time, there will be increased oversight. Included in the secretariat is a former well-respected auditor general, which will provide increased oversight for the work done by the officials."

That seemed to be as clear an admission as any that, throughout this process, and throughout the last election campaign, there was neither transparency, nor candour, nor anything approaching adequate oversight.

The Official Opposition's main hitter on this issue, Toronto MP Matthew Kellaway, focused on that precise point, in his follow-up question:

"The minister wants us to believe that she, too, was converted on the road to the F-35, but you will forgive my skepticism. F-35 bad news is not new news, and documents have surfaced showing that the Prime Minister and his cabinet were informed of every fumble and foul-up on the F-35. What they said before the election was simply not the truth. There was no signed contract, the program was not on time and Canada will, in fact, be subject to billions of dollars in cost overruns. Why did they not just tell us the truth?"

In response, Ambrose retreated to her previous defence: "What the Auditor General recommended is that the Department of National Defence revise its cost estimates for the F-35 and make them public. We have gone one step further. In fact, we are pressing reset on this process..."

Well that reset button just go a lot bigger. The government is now in full retreat mode and a purchase it had touted as absolutely essential since coming to office in 2006 is about to be cancelled.

Canada will have to start from scratch to seek a replacement for its fleet of fighter jets.

One issue so far largely absent from public discussion on the figher jet purchase, an issue that Kellaway has raised from time to time, is the matter of the larger policy context.

What are Canada's true defence needs and where do fighter jets fit in?

Even after we have decided which to buy -- what will we do with them?

We have virtually no debate or dialogue on that question.

In the interests of transparency, shouldn't that be part of what Minister Ambrose calls the "reset"?

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