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F-35 report leaves Tories exposed on previously strong fiscal credibility

OTTAWA - And then there were two.

After years of everyone from the prime minister to rookie Tory backbenchers staunchly and defiantly defending the purchase of the F-35 fighter jet as the only choice for Canada, the task of admitting that maybe it isn't was thrust into the hands of two cabinet ministers.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose were forced for almost an hour Wednesday into singing from the government's new song sheet on the fighter jets.

They strode smiling into the news conference following the release of an external auditor's report on the F-35s, but left clearly spent by the effort.

The KPMG report warned the Lockheed Martin-built F-35s could cost Canada as much as $45.8 billion over 42 years.

The report said the $9 billion set aside by the Defence Department won't be enough to cover the planned purchase of 65 jets.

So the government has now announced the entire process is under review.

The decision came not only after repeated Conservative defence of the planes and the process, but also after heated attacks on anyone who questioned them.

MacKay felt the heat Wednesday, the questions prompting him to remove his wire-rimmed glasses, tapping them nervously on the table as he was grilled again and again on how the government chose to handle the file.

Pressed on why the government didn't examine all the available options for the plane to start with, he said that's what the new audit report was meant to do.

Quizzed on whether the government ended up on the hot seat because they'd dodged revealing the true costs of the plane for as long as possible, MacKay insisted the acquisition costs of the plane hadn't changed.

Prodded as to whether he personally regretted any of their actions on the file at all, MacKay demurred at first to his standard line of being proud of the work the military does and the importance of the process to them.

Yes, but do you regret what you said, he was asked.

"What's important here is that we act on these recommendations, that we deliver to Canadians the certainty, the surety they require that they're getting the right aircraft for our country for the long term and that we're being responsible with taxpayers' dollars," he said.

And that's the rub for the Conservatives.

They've seen their majority grow in each election by selling their record on fiscal management and responsible spending.

Last Friday, the prime minister also faced the news media for close to an hour on a major new policy on foreign investment that will likely be a legacy for his government.

Yet, Wednesday's mea culpa begins the Christmas season with no celebrations for the Tories as they defend their actions on the F35 file — and their political credibility as solid fiscal managers.

At the same time as they cut spending and public-sector jobs, they'll be left trying to sell to the public the need to spend billions more on planes than expected.

The opposition called for at least for an immediate apology to Canadians.

"You can't move on, you can't move forward until you've admitted that you've got a problem and that you've made mistakes," said the NDP's Matthew Kellway.

"The minister of national defence and the prime minister himself have had ample opportunity to admit that they've made some very serious mistakes over the last two years, misleading Canadians on the price of this jet, on the delays of the jet, on the technical flaws with the jet and we've heard none of that."

The Liberals said the very process had been corrupted.

"Canadians were misled. Parliament was misled," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said.

"That is what makes this such a fiasco."


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