The Conservative government’s reputation for sound economic management is taking a big hit with revelations from the auditor-general about the process used to obtain F-35 fighter jets.
The new jets were known to cost about $25 billion, even before the last election. Yet the government and Conservative candidates consistently said the cost would be $14.7 billion.
This was based on figures from the defence department, which was given far too much sway in selecting the new jets. It is obvious that they were the department’s preference, and everything it did was designed to get the government to go along.
That’s where the Conservatives fell down. Whether it’s because the party has a stronger interest in defence issues than its Liberal predecessor, or because the ministers involved were relatively new to office (many of the decisions go back to 2006, the year the Conservatives took office), not enough tough questions were asked. Costs kept rising, and it is quite likely that the Conservative caucus had no knowledge of how quickly costs were jumping.
It appears from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s report that at least some members of cabinet did know, and they should have blown the whistle when it became clear that costs were going up astronomically.
To the government’s credit, it has now frozen spending on the fighter jet replacement program and has promised to be more accountable about decisions on the jets. It has also said it will be more diligent when making future decisions.
Members of cabinet who make decisions about government spending need to treat every decision as if it was their own money. Taxpayers are paying plenty of their hard-earned income to the federal government, and their money should not be wasted because one department is able to hijack the procurement process.
The Conservatives won a majority government last spring, largely on the basis that they would be the best stewards of tax money and would be the best party to help manage the economy.
Many Canadians still feel they are the party best positioned to do so. The party needs to prove to them, and to other more skeptical citizens, that it can take care when spending tax dollars and are ensuring taxpayers get the best bang for their buck.
Just because government is big is no reason it can’t spend wisely.