The Commons: Leave it to MacKay

Let us spare no cost in demonstrating our patriotism

The Scene. Demonstrating fine posture, Siobhan Coady stood straight, if not tall, along the back row of the opposition side and, in a tone of disbelief, reported the day’s findings of the auditor general.

“Mr. Speaker, today the Auditor General has revealed that the Conservatives caused an avalanche of problems, delays and cost overruns in acquiring 15 Chinook helicopters,” she lamented. “They essentially sole-sourced the deal without telling Public Works why. They identified the operational requirements only after announcing the procurement. They provided a cost estimate to the Treasury Board that they know was too low. As a result the Auditor General is warning of a billion dollar operating budget crunch at DND. The Conservatives broke every rule in the book.”

Ms. Coady then concluded with the most damning of open-ended questions—”Why?”

Faced with the findings of Sheila Fraser, an omnipotent fact-checker whose pursuit of proper accounting procedures has made her this nation’s most revered secular saint, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was compelled first to genuflect. “Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Auditor General herself for the incredible work that she does,” he said. “She has literally defined the role for our country.”

Whatever the questionable use of the phrase “literally,” the government side dutifully applauded. And as eager as they were to demonstrate their deference toward Madame Fraser, Mr. MacKay was quick to demonstrate his willingness to accept the auditor general’s scorn. “She has made constructive recommendations with regard to both national defence and public works,” he reported. “She has given us some recommendations, all of which I can assure the honourable member and the House have been accepted. These recommendations will be acted upon.”

Of course, one man’s “constructive recommendations” is another’s “harsh criticisms.” And so Ms. Coady and Mr. MacKay seemed to have stumbled into a difference of interpretation.

“The parallels between the Chinook process and the stealth fighters are uncanny,” she said next, segueing to the subject of the new F-35s the government is quite happy to boast of purchasing. “In both cases the Conservatives have not accounted for full life cycle costs. In both cases they did not identify the operational requirements before announcing the purchase. They did not take the procurement to tender. The maintenance contracts will not be signed until after we have lost all bargaining power.”

Mr. MacKay stood and bowed again—figuratively, not literally—at mention of the auditor general.  “But with respect to the acquisition of material, with respect to important equipment, be it helicopters, tanks, artillery, jet fighters, we will take no lessons from the members opposite,” he continued, transitioning flawlessly from deference to defiance. “As Minister of National Defence my greatest concern is providing the men and women of the Canadian Forces with the best equipment possible to ensure mission success to get them home safe to their families.”

Various government backbenchers sprang up to cheer this call for patriotism above all else.

Whatever the now-obvious futility of pursuing this line of questioning, the NDP’s Jack Harris rose awhile later to air his gruff Newfoundland twang. “Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives are five years late and massively over-budget with the delivery of new helicopters,” he sang. “The Conservatives said in 2006 that we urgently needed Chinooks for Afghanistan and sole-sourced the contract. Now we will not get the helicopters until 2013. The Auditor General said the sole-sourcing was unjustified and that National Defence did not follow its own rules. If the Conservatives are breaking the rules on sole-sourcing, how can we trust them with the F-35s? If they did not know the full cost of the helicopters, how can they know the full cost of the new fighter jets?”

Mr. MacKay, a man who sweats self-assurance, was up before Mr. Harris had finished—a gesture unique to the Defence Minister, one seemingly meant to demonstrate either an eagerness to answer or a disdain for the question. “Mr. Speaker, here is a newsflash for the member,” he snapped. “There are Chinooks flying in Afghanistan today with Canadian rondelles on the side.”

Bravely or foolishly, Mr. Harris stood to take a supplementary question all the same and restated his thesis. Mr. MacKay did not come back up as quick this time, but reveled all the more so in the time afforded him once he was on his feet.

“Let us go back to the essentials here,” he offered. “These are important helicopters that Canada will need and fly well into the future. These Chinook helicopters have demonstrated time and time again their capability in Afghanistan. They are literally saving lives.”

From a grammatical perspective at least, this seemed a more appropriate use of the term.

“This is why we make these investments,” he continued. “This is why I will never apologize as a member of this government for making the important investments.”

Unapologetically, he reached then for poetry.

“The proof is on the tarmac and in the fields of Afghanistan today,” he mused. “We are seeing the importance of this type of procurement going forward in time to give the men and women in uniform the important equipment they need.”

A larger number of government members leapt up to applaud.

If the choice is thus—between proper accounting and proper support for the troops—the remedy is perhaps obvious: a blank cheque for the Defence Department. Indeed, to do otherwise would seem to be very nearly treasonous.

The Stats. Foreign investment, eight questions. Ethics, six questions. The military and infrastructure, five questions each. Omar Khadr, four questions. The economy and the G20, three questions each. Justice and foreign affairs, two questions each. Pensions, fisheries and the environment, one question each.

Rona Ambrose, seven answers. John Baird and Lawrence Cannon, six answers each. Peter MacKay and Chuck Strahl, five answers each. Vic Toews, three answers. Rob Nicholson, Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Gail Shea and Pierre Poilievre, one answer each.