Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Budget Officer Says Tories Wanted Public to Believe F-35s Were Cheapest: Budget Officer Says Public Misled on F-35

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Budget Officer Says Tories Wanted Public to Believe F-35s Were Cheapest: Budget Officer Says Public Misled on F-35

Article excerpt

OTTAWA - The Conservative government wanted the public to believe the F-35 program was cheaper than it was actually going to be, says the parliamentary budget officer.

Kevin Page took the opportunity Thursday to refresh his long-standing criticism of the proposed multi-billion dollar purchase with an appearance before the House of Commons public accounts committee. It came just weeks after the auditor general accused National Defence and Public Works of misleading Parliament over the program.

Conservative MPs took turns trying to rip apart the assumptions, economic models and research that went into Page's March, 2011 report and its startling conclusion that the plan to buy 65 stealth fighters would cost $29 billion, not the $14.7 billion reported by Defence.

The auditor general pegged the total cost of the program at $25 billion.

The guidelines on how the numbers should be presented are clearly laid out in federal Treasury Board policy and should be followed, Page said.

"I think what we need to get in place, so we can really enhance trust in this country, is the kind of information that goes to cabinet to support decisions also goes to parliamentarians," he said.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson testified last week that cabinet knew the full $25 billion cost when it approved the project's budget in two stages in 2008 and accused the government of presenting two different sets of numbers -- a charge that's been denied by a phalanx of deputy ministers and officials who also appeared before the committee.

The key difference has been over whether National Defence should have disclosed $10 billion in operating costs for the lifetime of the jets.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied in the Commons there was an attempt to mislead the public, but once again acknowledged concern over the conflicting figures.

"The auditor general has questioned the reliability of some of these numbers, that's why the government has committed to re-examining this matter," he said in question period.

Page said National Defence withheld some key information from his office as he tried to estimate the full cost of the program and those holes became evident with the release of Ferguson's report.

The department was obliged by a parliamentary motion to give him everything, Page said.

However, in later testimony, deputy defence minister Robert Fonberg denied information was held back.

The testimony became bogged down in testy exchanges with government MPs, most notably junior defence minister Chris Alexander, who suggested it was the budget officer who was deliberately misleading with his estimate on the cost of initial production aircraft.

Other Conservatives said Treasury Board guidelines are just that -- guides -- leaving the suggestion the rules were open to interpretation. Still others asked Page why he, an officer of Canada's Parliament, would use U. …

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