The Commons: Rona Ambrose slips on a fifth generation banana peel

The Public Works Minister commits a Kinsley gaffe

The Scene. The NDP’s Matthew Kellway, blessed of the deadest of pans, seemed typically unimpressed.

“Reset and refresh are the new spin words, Mr. Speaker, but not so long ago the Minister of National Defence was unwavering,” Mr. Kellway recalled. “He stated, ‘This is the right plane, this is the right number, this is the right aircraft for our Canadian forces and Canada.’ Now he has lost that loving feeling.”

The New Democrats chuckled.

Throughout the fall this matter of the F-35 has lingered in the air, not quite at the forefront of the discussion, but not quite forgotten. And in the eight months since the auditor general’s report, the government’s position has not improved. Now, apparently, there are other options to consider. Now, apparently, the phrase “fifth generation” is “not helpful.” And soon, assumedly, there will be confirmation of a decidedly larger price tag for a plane the Conservatives once insisted the country absolutely had to have.

Here Mr. Kellway stood to mock the Defence Minister.

“Gross Conservative mismanagement has caused it all to come crumbling down around him and he sits and sits,” he sighed. “Will any minister stand up and apologize for deceiving Canadians?”

Rona Ambrose, the Public Works Minister, stood to take this one, as she mostly has since the auditor general interrupted the crusade (to use Julian Fantino’s word of just over a year ago).

“Mr. Speaker, the member knows full well that no funds have been spent on the acquisition of any new aircraft,” Ms. Ambrose responded. “The member agrees with me, I know, and everyone in the chamber I am sure does, that we need to replace our aging fleet of CF-18s. However, before we do that, we have set up a process to make sure that all of the costs for the F-35 are verified, that there is public and full transparency in this process. All options are on the table and we will make sure that we take all of those steps before making any decisions to replace the CF-18.”

Mr. Kellway continued with his lament.

“And still he sits, Mr. Speaker, cover gamely provided by the Minister of Public Works and Government Services,” he lamented, “and yet here is what she once had to say about holding a competition to replace the CF-18. She stated it, ‘would risk the future of our aerospace industry because any delays, frankly, would be slamming the door shut on Canadian jobs.’ Yet today the Conservatives have committed just shy of $1 billion on the joint strike fighter program and Canadian companies have received less than half of that in contracts. Billions of dollars in industrial benefits forgone. Are they finally prepared to start to open a transparent process?”

Ms. Ambrose, normally sure-footed, now stumbled badly.

“Mr. Speaker,” she responded, “that open and transparent process started right after the Auditor General’s report.”

The opposition descended into laughter, the joke being the nearly two-year gap between the Defence Minister giving the thumbs-up and the Auditor General’s report. Down the way, Liberal MP John McKay, a veteran of this file, clapped.

Here, perhaps, Ms. Ambrose had committed something like a Kinsley gaffe.

The Speaker called for order and Ms. Ambrose attempted to recover. “Mr. Speaker, when we became aware of the concerns raised by the Auditor General, we immediately pressed reset on this process and we have set up a secretariat to ensure that there is maximum oversight and due diligence, including independent oversight,” she explained. “Again, no funds have been spent on the acquisition of any fighter aircraft and no funds will be spent until we do the due diligence necessary.”

If only this had been something like the explanation two years ago.

The Stats. Aboriginal affairs, six questions. The coast guard and crime, four questions each. Government spending, the F-35 and foreign aid, three questions each. Government contracts, Maxime Bernier’s car keys, the Arctic, fisheries and privacy, two questions each. The economy, national defence, border security, transportation, the budget and the Middle East, one question each.

Gail Shea, eight responses. Stephen Harper, six responses. Rona Ambrose, five responses. Julian Fantino, three responses. Rob Nicholson, Maxime Bernier, John Duncan, Tony Clement and Leona Aglukkaq, two responses each. David Christopherson, Vic Toews, Peter MacKay, Denis Lebel, Jim Flaherty and John Baird, one response each.