Auditor and budget officer's F-35 critiques watered down in Commons report

OTTAWA - Stinging criticism of the political and bureaucratic fiasco surrounding the F-35 by the country's budget officer and even the auditor general was edited out of the final version of a parliamentary investigation, a draft copy of the report shows.

The Conservative-dominated all-party House of Commons public accounts committee held seven hours of hearings and spent much more time arguing with Opposition members behind closed doors last spring and fall over the handling of the stealth fighter program.

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A Nov. 1, 2012 copy of the draft report, obtained by The Canadian Press, shows some of the most pointed critiques of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and Auditor General Michael Ferguson — both of whom testified before the committee — were removed or softened in the report's final version.

MP Andrew Saxton, the Conservative who led the government charge during public hearings, did not return calls for comment Monday.

The leaked draft, which is supposed to remain secret under parliamentary rules, clearly demonstrates an attempt to "whitewash" the report, opposition members say.

The committee's final report was released last November.

The auditor set off a political firestorm last spring by declaring National Defence and Public Works lowballed the cost of the multibillion-dollar program and did not follow proper procedures in giving it the green light.

One of the most damning redactions involves Ferguson's observation that the governing Conservatives had seen the full cost of the plan, including the stealth fighter's estimated $10 billion operating cost — a figure that was never revealed until his audit.

The edited paragraph in the final version of the report focuses the blame for the missing figures on National Defence, while the draft copy noted that "this information was included in estimates provided to decision-makers" — meaning the Conservative cabinet.

The subtle but significant omission in the committee's public report shifts the blame for the lack of disclosure away from the politicians and on to the shoulders of the military.

The report also drops Ferguson's warning about not allowing the cost of owning F-35s to eat into the rest of the defence budget, as well as a passage of testimony from Page, who challenged the government's assumptions with his own March 2011 report about the aircraft's long-term price tag.

References to the fact the F-35 was selected without competition were also deleted, as was mention that the price tag per aircraft could climb to US $138 million, not the US $75 million touted by the government.

The notion that there was something to learn from how the F-35's industrial benefits also unravelled as a result was also left out.

"This committee believes that this lesson can be applied to future information prepared by Industry Canada," said the draft.

"It is important that parliamentarians and Canadians have a fair assessment of the anticipated industrial benefits of participating in the (Joint Strike Fighter) program."

Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, the deputy chairman of the public accounts committee, said the final report was not a reflection of what MPs heard.

"What is obvious to each and every one of us is that we are not doing the job that is expected of us," Byrne said.

"The committee is becoming very dysfunctional and I think, in my opinion, there has been a whitewashing."

New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen was equally dismayed.

"Our position was that we clearly did not agree with the majority report," said Allen, who was reluctant to talk about the leaked draft.

He noted both opposition parties wrote their own dissenting reports at the time the committee released its work.

The Conservatives have put the F-35 purchase on hold, and are currently doing a market analysis to determine whether they should call for a full-blown competition to replace the current CF-18 fleet.

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