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Harper’s Pride and Prejudice

April 12, 2012

This column was published in FFWD on April 12, 2012.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson’s scathing report on the Department of National Defence’s handling of the F-35 debacle indicates there are big problems in Ottawa, and they may run much deeper than the single-minded desire to purchase a flock of cutting-edge fighter planes. If Ferguson’s report is accurate, and there is no reason to believe it isn’t, it reveals a federal government — led by the strident, micro-managing Prime Minister Stephen Harper — that has no problem with manipulating information and policy processes meant to ensure government decisions are transparent and in the public interest.

Last week, Ferguson revealed that the Harper government misled Parliament and the Canadian public in its bid to purchase 65 fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. Originally, the estimated cost of the purchase was $9 billion. Before the last election, Harper’s Conservatives claimed it would cost no more than $15 billion. Ferguson revealed that the Conservatives knew the price tag had risen to $25 billion, but chose not to let us know before we cast our votes. Now estimates indicate it might be as high as $40 million. Why? Presumably to keep us in the dark so we would elect them based on a now discredited platform of fiscal responsibility.

Worse, Ferguson revealed that the Conservatives chose to circumvent the procurement process reserved for purchases of this magnitude. Instead of putting the purchase out to competitive bids, which is the usual practice, the government manipulated the process so they could sign off on the F-35s before it adequately understood the stealth fighters’ performance, or the costs and risks associated with purchasing them. The F-35 was, they claimed, essential to protecting our national sovereignty.

“Defence officials simply decided in advance which aircraft they wanted, and that was that,” wrote columnist Andrew Coyne in the National Post. “Guidelines were evaded, Parliament was lied to and, in the end, the people of Canada were stuck with planes that may or may not be able to do the job set out for them, years after they were supposed to be delivered, at twice the promised cost.”

Critics have been raising these same concerns about the F-35 boondoggle for years, but Harper and his ministers simply dismissed them as illogical speculation, and attacked critics for being treasonous Canadians bent on putting soldiers’ lives and Canadians’ jobs at risk. Now the truth is out: the critics were right. But it would appear that despite the reprehensible behaviour that is at the root of what can only be called a political scandal, not a single politician or bureaucrat will be reprimanded or punished.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Harper’s Conservatives (along with Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives) have adopted similar strategies to promote and even fast-track the development of Alberta’s oilsands and the pipelines they claim are undoubtedly in Canada’s national interest. For years critics expressed concern that oilsands development was polluting the land and water in northern Alberta, but government officials continued to rely on a faulty, industry-run monitoring system to claim they were being developed in a “responsible, sustainable, even ethical” manner. It wasn’t until renowned aquatic ecologist David Schindler took the matter into his own hands and conducted what he called the most basic of analyses that the government was forced to look into the matter. And guess what: the critics were right.

The difference was that none of the independent panels were tasked with understanding why the monitoring program for one of the world’s largest energy projects was so defective. The focus was on “moving forward” rather than looking back to understand who or what was responsible for the breakdown in the regulatory process that allowed industry to pollute one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems for more than a decade without the appropriate oversight of the responsible government agencies. Not a single politician or bureaucrat was reprimanded or punished.

The problem with the optimistic “moving forward” approach to government accountability is that there are no disincentives for individuals to game the system. And so the same politicians and bureaucrats, under the watchful eye of the same authoritarian prime minister, are doing the same thing as Canadians decide whether or not to build the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline to transport bitumen crude to the West Coast.

Despite the fact most experts concur that Canada’s environmental assessment process is inadequate and ineffective, and despite a 2011 report by Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development that was highly critical of the environmental assessment of oilsands projects in particular, the Harper Conservatives are systematically dismantling the regulatory process that decides whether these projects are in the public interest. In the process, they attack critics for being radical extremists and treasonous enemies of the state, just as they did critics of the Conservative’s desire to buy F-35 stealth fighters.

Why? As in the F-35 debacle, the federal Conservatives have already made prejudicial decisions on the future of the oilsands and the Northern Gateway pipeline. They are not interested in the results of effective, transparent regulatory processes meant to ensure that ideology doesn’t get in the way of important decisions that will impact Canadians for generations. They think they know — no, they know they know — what’s best for us, and they will do whatever they can to ensure the facts don’t get in the way.

Coyne, quoting the Ferguson report, pointed out that it was the “wealth of ‘industrial benefits’ they were promised” that the Conservatives used as the basis for key decisions regarding the F-35 purchase. Overestimating the short-term economic benefits and ignoring, even hiding, the long-term costs has become a classic characteristic of neo-liberal politics, which is likely a bigger problem in the debates over the future of the oilsands and the Northern Gateway pipeline than they are in those over the future of the F-35.

If this is democracy, it is democracy at its worst. We need a political system that doesn’t allow politicians to hoodwink us with a web of little black lies. Greater separation of powers, more transparent regulatory processes, and a stronger judiciary — one that allows citizens to punish politicians and government agencies in the courts for their transgressions — is the only answer to such abuses of power. Yes, it will be less expedient, but when the future of a nation and a planet are at stake, what’s more important?

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