Me thinks he doth protest too much. Pundits furiously tweeted at Andrew MacDougall in the Prime Minister's Office on Thursday night, as the government scrambled to insist that the F-35 deal has not been cancelled. A storm of incredulity, including a report from the Globe and Mail that the Conservatives will release estimates next week pegging the lifetime of the jets at more than $40 billion, broke on MacDougall's tweet that "cabinet has not yet taken a decision on the F-35." But boondoggle that this may appear, and there will be some red faces if it all turns out to be true, there are two distinct opportunities that can be salvaged from the wreckage of the F-35.
First, it is a chance for Public Minister Rona Ambrose to showcase procurement done right. The fighter procurement process has been the responsibility of Minister Ambrose since last spring, following Ferguson's audit. Her handling, together with that of veteran senior bureaucrat Tom Ring, of the government's much-lauded ship-building contract process in the fall of 2011 has branded her as the key person to turn this procurement process around. She has signaled more than once that she is unhappy with the procurement process for the F-35s. On November 22, Minister Ambrose said in the House that the government is committed to "a full evaluation of all choices, not simply a refresh." The key of such a full evaluation will be finding value for cost, and especially after the long, drawn out techno-babble squabble of the F-35, something that the public can confidently see actually flies. Defense procurement has long been a mess, saddled with the spin off requirements of industrial benefit. In the words of Andrew Coyne, "just buy the best plane for the least money and leave the corporate welfare the hell out of it." There's something Conservatives can take to the bank.
Second, rebooting a major defense procurement right in time for a foreign policy review gives Conservatives a chance to not only tether value to dollars, but also hardware to vision. I argued in the spring of 2011 that the procurement process of the F-35s had a backward logic: the question was not whether to buy the planes, but why. Public debate got bogged down quickly into highly technical minutia about the aircraft, some of which has turned out to be justified since there is still reasonable doubt as to the viability of some of its promised features. But critically absent was something like a foreign policy review that would actually paint a coherent picture of Canada's role in the world, and what sort of defense (and offense) powers that this role would need. The F-35 story has now dragged on for so long that Canada has since (possibly) come into its first formal foreign policy review.
People have gotten cranky. Jack Granatstein is one of them. He writes, "it is becoming increasingly clear that the government has no defence policy." Once upon a time White Papers and formal, public reviews led the way on procurements of this scale. Not now, says Granatstein. A leaked foreign policy paper waxes long on trade, with the sense that "the government wishes it had never made defence such a large part of its party program."
It certainly need not be so. A full, public, foreign policy review, with Minister Ambrose's steady hand on procurement, could yet connect value to dollars, and hardware to vision. That may take some red faces and some swallowed pride, but it will also put the ball back in the court of this government, its agenda, and its vision for Canada and its role in the world.