Harper gov't 'low-balling' price of F-35: Ignatieff
Published Thursday, March 10, 2011 8:04PM EST
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused the government of "low-balling" taxpayers Thursday about the true cost to buy 65 new F-35 fighter jets, as a new report suggested that the final price tag could be double the initial estimates.
Ignatieff said in Parliament that the estimated $30-billion bill for the jets represents "$1,000 for every Canadian man, woman and child."
Earlier in the day, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page released his report into the plan to purchase stealth fighter jets from U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
The 64-page report pegs the cost at just under $30 billion over a 30-year period.
The government has said the jets would cost $16 billion, including maintenance costs. Page said the government's estimates were based on a 20-year period, and used out-of-date information from the planes' manufacturer.
"I don't think they've been transparent," Page said.
The government hasn't budgeted enough money for the planes in their long-term defence plan, he added, placing the federal treasury at risk.
Ignatieff said that the government has only offered Canadians a "guestimate" about the eventual price tag.
"When will this government stop low-balling the Canadian public, face the facts and tell them the truth?" Ignatieff asked.
Page's estimate factors in the historical increase of 4 per cent per year to the cost of building fighter jets.
"Relying on these historical trends and applicable cost drivers, the PBO was able to forecast a total ownership cost of approximately US$29.3 billion for the 65 aircraft over a 30-year period," the report states.
The report, which was reviewed by independent experts in several countries, said there was insufficient data to estimate how much the contract would cost if it had been opened to multiple bidders instead of sole-sourced.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about the report in Toronto, he told reporters that he would not "get into a lengthy debate about numbers" and said that the contracts to purchase the jets are already in place.
However, the report said there would be no penalties for declining to go ahead with the purchase.
The federal government "has not signed any binding contract for acquisition, nor is it under any legal obligation -- international or domestic -- to go ahead with the purchase," it said.
The prime minister also said the current plan was set in motion by the previous Liberal government in 1997, and maintained that the F-35 "is the only fighter available that serves the purposes that our air force needs."
In writing the report, Page's office was given access to the air force's statement of requirements for the new planes. It was dated June 1, 2010, only weeks before the government announced its intention to purchase the F-35s.
That led NDP defence critic Jack Harris to charge that the statement of requirements was written to fit the F-35 deal.
"We've been sold a bill of goods," Harris said.
The Liberals say they would cancel the non-binding purchase agreement and open up a competitive bidding process.
Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said the per-plane cost estimate shows the Conservatives have intentionally deceived taxpayers.
The Conservative estimate puts the total cost at around $250 million per plane, compared to Page's estimate of around $450 million.
"This is an unconscionable amount of money," LeBlanc said of the difference between the two estimates.
"The Conservatives have once again misled Canadians about the real cost of their agenda and that's why Parliament has to take this issue very, very seriously."
Jay Paxton, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said defence experts "stand by their cost projections."
"This report is intended as a preliminary set of data for discussion," he said. He described the F-35 as "the only jet that can meet the needs of the Air Force, as noted by Mr. Page. Simply put, this is the best plane for the best price and we are confident in our acquisition."
Tough week for Tories
The Conservatives have faced criticism over a number of issues in recent days.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Peter Milliken issued two rulings against the government.
Milliken ruled the government breached parliamentary privilege by refusing to provide all documents that the Standing Committee on Finance requested, detailing the full cost of its crime bills and tax cuts.
He said MPs are entitled to know the initiatives' exact costs. The government has declined to reveal the full estimates, citing cabinet confidences.
In a second ruling issued Wednesday, Milliken found that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda breached parliamentary privilege by misleading MPs when she claimed she did not know who altered an official document that denied funding to a faith-based aid organization.
Oda later admitted she had authorized a staff member to add the word "not" to a document that recommended $7 million in funding for KAIROS.
Milliken's rulings will now go to the Commons procedures and House affairs committee, which will consider what action to take. On the issue of the costs of the tax cuts and crime bills, MPs will have to decide whether to compel the government to issue all related documents. Committee members will also consider whether Oda lied to Parliament.
With files from The Canadian Press