Where was Peter MacKay?

As auditor general Michael Ferguson laid out details of how the country’s largest military purchase had become a fantasy featuring rejigged requirements, buried costs and bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, one question kept recurring. Where was Peter MacKay?

As auditor general Michael Ferguson laid out details of how the country’s largest military purchase had become a fantasy featuring rejigged requirements, buried costs and bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, one question kept recurring.

Where was Peter MacKay?

It was clear that the brass at national defence didn’t bother to keep their minister in the loop, so blinded were they to that shiny object in the showroom.

But there is nothing in the cabinet minister handbook preventing a few questions being asked, or some assurances sought. How about poking your head in the door to check from time to time on the biggest expenditure of taxpayers dollars you have ever overseen?

Instead, MacKay looked like a tourist on a magic bus of broken rules and financial sleight-of-hand, getting off just in time to announce the federal government’s decision to buy the F-35s in July 2010 — before anyone had even formally bothered to make up a phony rationale for sole-sourcing the contract.

MacKay wasn’t alone.

Where was his predecessor, Gordon O’Connor, the public works minister, Rona Ambrose and, more recently, MacKay’s sidekick at defence, the daily, droning face of the project, Julian Fantino?

Ferguson painted a picture Tuesday of a bureaucracy run amok, bamboozling their political masters at every step.

The most damning game of fun with figures came from a military determined to counter a damaging report by the parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page.

In ignoring a litany of costs, defence came up with a price tag for the planes of $14.7 billion — about half Page’s more accurate appraisal — in a deliberate bid to mislead Parliament.

Page’s numbers were dismissed at the time by then junior defence minister Lawrie Hawn as “speculative and illogical.”

The ministers either misled or were misled.

On balance, Ferguson’s report points to incompetence — ministers who smiled and accepted whatever their departmental staff handed them.

Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister at defence and F-35 critic, says it is the bureaucracy’s job to keep their ministers in the loop, something it clearly did not do in this case.

“But that doesn’t obviate a minister from being smart enough to ask questions,’’ he said.

The report is rife with examples of a bureaucracy hoodwinking their political masters.

Time and again, defence officials provided only the rosiest cost projections, didn’t bother to explain rationale for their overstated projections on benefits to Canadian industry, never raised so much as a paragraph warning of any future speed bumps.

They maintained the cost would remain at $75 million per plane, even after being formally told by Washington in February 2010 that the costs were going to go up and the delivery was to be slowed.

They did not factor in any costs of the modifications they knew would be needed for the Canadian model and drove down personnel and maintenance costs by providing calculations based on a 20-year lifespan, even though they planned to use them for 36 years.

They didn’t account for additional planes because of their own assumed attrition rates and they did not budget for inevitable hardware and software upgrades.

In 2008, “options” were analyzed but the F-35 emerged as providing “best value.’’

No surprise there. Ferguson determined defence brass had decided in 2006 that the F-35 was their plane.

No one provided any documentation supporting either the analysis or the 2008 conclusion.

Worse, no one asked for any.

Defence officials shopped around for a rationale to justify the sole- source bid, and up until late May 2010, just weeks before the announcement, decided to justify it by saying a bidding process was not in the public interest.

When that didn’t fly, they settled on “only one contractor is capable of performing the contract,’’ and went back to reword the documents to fit that choice.

Through it all, public works was led around by its nose by the defence officials who would not be deterred from buying new toys.

No one, from MacKay on down, checked on the racket from that party over at DND, where they made up bogus requirements, juggled numbers and metaphorically raided their parents’ liquor cabinet.

It was all fun and fantasy, but the party’s over now.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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