Coyne: F-35 debacle demonstrates a system of government in collapse
April 4, 2012
By Andrew Coyne, Postmedia News
There are so many layers of misconduct in the F-35 affair that it is difficult to know where to start. Do we especially deplore the rigging of operational requirements by defence officials to justify a decision that had already been made? Or should we focus on the government’s decision to buy the planes without even seeing the department’s handiwork? Is the scandal that the department deliberatedly understated the cost of the jets, in presentations to Parliament and the public? Or is it that its own internal figures, though they exceeded the published amounts by some $10-billon, were themselves, according to the Auditor General, gross underestimates?
It’s all of those things, of course, and more: a fiasco from top to bottom, combining lapses of professional ethics, ministerial responsibility and democratic accountability into one spectacular illustration of how completely our system of government has gone to hell.
This was, until last year’s shipbuilding contract, the largest single purchase in the country’s history. And yet it was carried out, as we now learn, without proper documentation, without accurate data, and without any of the normal procurement rules being followed. Defence officials simply decided in advance which aircraft they wanted, and that was that. Guidelines were evaded, Parliament was lied to, and in the end the people of Canada were set to purchase planes that may or may not be able to do the job set out for them, years after they were supposed to be delivered, at twice the promised cost.
But of course it’s much worse than that. If department officials played two successive ministers of defence, Gordon O’Connor and Peter MacKay, for fools, the evidence shows they did not have to exert themselves much; if they did not offer evidence to back their claims, whether on performance, costs, or risks, it is because ministers did not think to ask for any. Nor was this negligence confined to the Department of National Defence.
The passage explaining how Public Works was persuaded to sign off on the deal is perhaps the most damning in the Auditor General’s report. Anxious to avoid having to put the purchase out to competitive bids, as is usually the practice, defence officials hit upon the scheme of drafting the requirements in such a way that only the F-35 could meet them — needlessly, as I mentioned, as the government agreed to go ahead with the purchase a month before the requirements were delivered; that is, before they even knew what the planes were supposed to do, let alone whether they could do them.
Nevertheless, at some point in the process somebody at the department of Public Works and Government Services became suspicious of defence’s claims, and alerted their superiors. What kind of documentation did the “senior decision makers” (who they?) at Public Works demand from their defence counterparts? Take it away, Auditor General! “In lieu of a formalized statement of operational requirement or a complete options analysis,” Public Works informed Defence it would go along with the sole-source dodge if it were provided a letter, “confirming National Defence’s requirement for a fifth generation fighter and confirming that the F-35 is the only such aircraft available.” Wait, it gets better: The letter was produced “the same day.” Still better: “There were no other supporting documents.” Still better: “It is important to note that the term ‘fifth generation’ is not a description of an operational requirement.” Stop! You’re killing me!
Whether ministers knew they were peddling the same falsehoods is to some extent beside the point. If they did not know, as the saying goes, they should have. It is plausible that a kind of willful blindness might have set in. If ministers were too willing to believe their officials, it might have been because they liked what they were being told. The Auditor General’s report leaves little doubt why: because of the wealth of “industrial benefits” they were promised (“a driving motivation for participation . . . used extensively as a basis for key decisions . . . briefing materials (placed) particular emphasis on industrial benefits . . . ). This is what comes of allowing pork-barrel politics into decisions that should be guided by only one consideration: getting value for the taxpayers’ money.
But what’s really at issue here is neither duplicitous bureaucrats nor credulous ministers. It is the lack of transparency throughout. If officials kept their ministers in the dark, it is also true that ministers kept Parliament in the dark. Had anyone outside government been allowed to see the requirements, we might have been able to judge whether these were as essential to the defence of the nation as claimed; whether the F-35 was indeed the only plane that could fulfill them, and so on. Had Parliament been given the costing information it demanded, we might have been in a better position to judge who was right, the government or its critics — before the last election, not after. Remember, it was the government’s refusal to provide just this information that was, in part, the reason for the motion of no-confidence that precipitated the election.
So this is also what comes of Parliament’s prerogatives, its powers to hold ministers to account, being ignored or overridden. These aren’t procedural niceties, of concern only to constitutional law professors — “process issues,” as more than one member of the press gallery sneered at the time. They’re the vital bulwarks of self-government, the only means we have of ensuring our wishes are obeyed and our money isn’t wasted. Parliament having long ago lost control of the public purse, it was only a matter of time before the government did as well.