Polar bear, eh?

The polar bear, Canada’s new national symbol? Um, no. Polar bears are majestic, powerful, free and noble. Whereas our society seems, increasingly, timorous, tepid, whinny and incredibly precious.

Take, for instance, the recent controversy in the nation’s capital over bus drivers. It’s Ottawa’s own Dreyfus Affair. Gerda Munsinger, Watergate, the Profumo Affair; none of these hold a candle to the fuss over bus (es), precipitated by one driver’s apparent lapse into road rage at 2 a.m., as he faced a young passenger who just wouldn’t shut up, and another driver who, cruelly, has been ordered not to sing on the job.

I heard about the first incident, on an endlessly repeating spool, on my drive into Ottawa earlier this week. A humble scriptwriting student, 20-year-old Matthew Taronno, was quietly minding his own business – well, actually he wasn’t minding his own business, he was reading aloud from one of his scripts – when the bus driver blew his stack. In a moment captured on cell-phone video and posted to YouTube, the anonymous driver cusses the young man out in exceptionally vigorous, colourful terms. He threatens, in fact, to punch him in the nose.

Taronno later claimed to be “mildly autistic”: The CBC loved that angle. A bus driver, threatening a handicapped student? Marvelous. This brute may as well have dumped a sweet little old lady out of her wheelchair onto the cold pavement. In fact, he probably has, in the past. Let’s assume so. Never mind this very simple but rather glaring omission in the story: What was Taronno reading? He himself acknowledges it wasn’t “appropriate.” But what was it? And were there prior incidents of impromptu soliloquies on the bus?

More to the point, why does anyone care? This young man was subjected to harsh language. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so delicate?

Then there’s the case of the singing bus driver, Yves Roy. He’s been ordered, the Ottawa Citizen reports, to stop warbling while driving, because of numerous public complaints. The City of Ottawa, it is implied, is a big, hard-hearted meanie, with no sense of humour whatsoever. Roy has been singing on the bus for nearly a decade. Some of his passengers love it. Where is the humanity?

My question: Where is the humanity in allowing a bus driver, who may or may not be a decent singer, to subject bleary-eyed commuters to his artistic impulses? With great respect, has Roy not heard of Garage Band? It’s user-friendly software for amateur singers. With a copy of Garage Band any amateur can make himself sound like Bing Crosby. Knock yourself out. Or sing in the shower. But don’t assume that, in a public place, you can subject other people to your tastes.

Next, consider a couple of recent stories about two hoary dinosaurs of the politically incorrect right, John Crosbie and Don Cherry. Last week Crosbie ran afoul of the thought police because of a joke, terribly inappropriate, about Pakistani suicide bombers. Here’s the joke: A depressed American called a suicide helpline and got routed to a call-centre in Pakistan. When he told them he was depressed, Crosbie recounted, they “got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.”

Did you laugh? Be honest. Various people were offended, including representatives of a Pakistani student organization and diplomatic types. But here’s the thing: The joke is funny. It plays to an unfair stereotype, to be sure: But so do very many funny jokes. And, the best humour always has at its heart some painful truth. Here’s one: Pakistan’s intelligence service is known to collude with the Taliban, which is trying to kill Canadian soldiers. Perhaps we should be talking about that, rather than Crosbie’s joke. When did we become so very delicate?

Don Cherry, for his part, is learning to take the high road – likely because he’s been told by the CBC to rein it in, or hang up his spurs. Nominated for an honourary doctorate by the Royal Military College of Canada in recognition of his strong support for Canadian soldiers, Cherry turned it down. Not because he didn’t want the degree, but because some RCM professors complained.

Don Cherry, let’s be blunt, is a self-created clown. His support for fighting in hockey, his over-the-top grumpy-old-man populism, have made him a caricature of himself. But if RMC wants to highlight and reward his patriotism, why should they not? Reasonable people are free to disagree and hopefully will, in language at least as colourful as Cherry’s, though hopefully wearing more tasteful suits. Isn’t that democracy? Or, it would have been, had he felt able to accept, without bringing another pox of negative publicity down around his ears.

What’s truly curious about all this is the breathless tone of the reportage: It’s as though it really matters. Clearly, we in Canada have no earthquakes, floods, famines, wars or epidemics; Otherwise we wouldn’t be fretting about singing (or swearing) bus drivers, or the wisecracks of irascible old men.

Polar bear, indeed. Tree squirrel, maybe? Or, how about this: The beaver.



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Bob Rae, for PM?

Bob Rae won’t say whether he wants to be prime minister. But he does want that, with every fibre of his being.

And here’s the curious magic that charisma, gravitas and a dash of hubris can effect: Listening to Rae speak, it’s hard not to believe, at least for a while, that he might pull it off. Certainly he thinks he can. The pat responses about heeding party rules calling for him to stand aside in 2013? Let’s quietly set those aside. Rae is crafting a come-from-behind run for the country’s top job. And he’s going about it in clever, methodical fashion.

On the face of it, Rae’s situation could not be more grim. Last May 2 the once-mighty Liberal Party of Canada, led by Michael Ignatieff, was reduced to a pitiful 34 seats. It was a humiliation on par with John Turner’s drubbing at the hands of Brian Mulroney in 1984. Rae has the unenviable task of sorting through the ruins looking for salvageable beams.

As he himself acknowledges: “If you look at the results of the last election, we pretty well lost everywhere. It would be hard to say we we’ve . . . succeeded in defending any particular bastion in the last little while. We’ve been receding. That can’t continue.”

In the past nine months, Rae told an online audience Sunday, Conservatives have raised $18 million to the Liberals’ $8 million. With both corporate and government “sugar daddies” out of the frame, Liberals must rely on themselves, Rae says: “We need thousands of shoulders to the wheel.”

It’s a nice image. But what can it yield, if Grit supporters are an increasingly grizzled group of primarily urban, retired, degreed professionals and civil servants – while the Conservatives and New Democrats carve up Main Street between them? Polls suggest this is precisely what has happened, and continues to happen.

One knock against Rae has been that, though he loves to speak and is very good at it, he’s not a natural listener. The same might be said of his party. After May 2, just as they’d done to former leader Stephane Dion after his loss in 2008, senior Liberals dragged Ignatieff out behind the barn and put him down. It was quick and relatively painless.

The implication? If the leader had only been more effective, dodged the dastardly Harper attack ads or returned fire more effectively, they could’ve been contenders.

A possibility many Liberals still fail to acknowledge, is that large numbers of Canadians simply don’t agree with them any more, on some core issues. The long-gun registry is one, certainly in rural and small-town Canada. Borrowing billions to fund new federal programs, as Ignatieff promised to do in the last campaign, is another.

For years, Grit politicians have bemoaned the loss of Canada’s international reputation. Oddly, that message doesn’t seem to have caught on internationally, where Canada is, in fact, widely respected – particularly by our closest allies the United States and Britain, whose troops fought alongside Canadians in Afghanistan. The world likes our banking system too, apparently. Canadians have the Internet, and can read the foreign news.

Liberals have tried hard for half a decade to turn the plight of Omar Khadr into a rallying cry for human rights. They have a point: Khadr was just 15, a child by UN convention, at the time of his arrest. But do ordinary Canadians empathize enough with an enemy combatant, whatever his age, to make this anything but a loser, politically? The answer is no.

Rae appears to understand the branding problem, which Ignatieff did not. He also knows the prize is the solid centre – with a leftward tilt on social issues, and a rightward one on economics and geopolitics. On Iran he’s a hawk. On marijuana he’s a dove. On taxes he muses about lowering, not raising. “It’s productivity that speaks to our prosperity – we have to look at everything.”

If it holds, it could be the germination of a Liberal shift back to the moderate centre-right, where the party had its success in the ’90s. Pragmatic Liberals would cheer. Rae’s biggest problem, should he manage to stick around until 2015, will be Ontarians’ memories of the recession of the early ’90s. That’s a big problem. For now though, it doesn’t appear to be spoiling his fun. “I enjoy it,” he says of his role as scrapper and underdog. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

Fair enough. Aside from all that, however, would Bob Rae like to be PM? Honestly? Don’t ask. He won’t say.


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Timmy’s, selling lattes? Say it ain’t so

There comes a point in the devolution of a political campaign, or a party, when every bit of news seems dreadful. So we must take Tim Hortons’ sotto-vocce bombshell that it will soon offer lattes — lattes, for heaven’s sake — with a pinch of salt. Firmly left- or right-leaning Canadians must not, as CBC commentator Rex Murphy did on TV the other night, blow a gasket.

Certainly Liberal leader Bob Rae was working hard in Victoria Saturday and again online Sunday to shore up some venerable old brand distinctions between left and right. But Timmy’s, selling lattes?

If Tim’s can sell fancy coffee, then none of our most prized cliches — or political brands, which are just glorified cliches — mean a damn. We will have lions lying down with lambs; knock-kneed, reedy poets breaking Timbits alongside self-employed pipefitters from Fort McMurray, Alta.; Don Cherry sharing office space with David Suzuki, the two of them taking turns to water their potted ferns on alternating days.

In effect, any horror at all becomes possible.

Curiously, exit-polling data from the recent federal election suggest such a conflation is, in fact, underway — and that it underlies the Conservative win. Ipsos culled responses from 40,000 voters. The core take-away, according to pollster Darrell Bricker, is that traditional political brands are morphing into something new. Whereas the old PC party was deemed an organ of Bay Street, the new CPC voter is solidly Main Street. “These are people who are middle-class taxpayers and homeowners,” Bricker said. “The hockey-night in Canada crowd.” Double-double, anyone?

Here’s what should send a chill running down the spine of every grizzled Trudeau Liberal: Though the new Conservative base includes working-class folks, it has grown beyond that. “They’re more free-trade, anti-union, pro-business. What they aren’t is right-wing born-again Christian, Republican types. They have college educations. They’re entrepreneurial — running their own businesses.”

These are Tim Hortons’ kind of people, in other words — but they may also be latte drinkers.

This being Canada, quite a bit of hard research has been done on the political leanings of Timmy’s devotees. A Decima-Harris survey in 2009 found that about half of Conservative, Liberal and NDP voters, give or take a couple of percentage points, were regular Tim’s clients. They crossed all lines of age, class, gender or political philosophy. Likewise, a 2008 analysis by the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor found that Tory-held ridings at that time actually contained slightly more Starbucks outlets than Tim’s.

Fascinating but moot, it seems to me. Tim Hortons currently has a staggering 2,800 Canadian stores, compared with Starbucks’ 800. (Coincidentally, the ratio of Starbucks to Tim’s stores, 28 per cent, is not overly dissimilar to the ratio of Liberal to Conservative seats in the current Parliament, 20 per cent.) Based on numbers alone Timmy’s is king, and will be for the foreseeable future. Brand identity-wise, it seems to be slipping inexorably into the Conservative column.

Tim’s scholars — yes, Canada has those too, and they are brilliant — are sanguine about the foray into lattes. St. Francis Xavier University sociologist Patricia Cormack says she expects the new coffees will emerge without fanfare. She notes Tim’s already sells some “specialty” concoctions but that your basic java still dominates the chain’s website. “It’s not the same thing as those drinks you get at Starbucks where you need an undergraduate degree in classics to order them.” Nicely put.

Carleton University political scientist Richard Nimijean intimates it may be a tempest in a teapot: “Is it not possible that Tim’s is simply making a business decision in light of the changing dynamics of the coffee market, and that it says nothing at all about the political landscape?”

Um, as if? This is Tim’s.

Toronto ad man Paul Wales, whose team at JWT Canada created the groundbreaking Tim’s “true stories” TV ads — which made the gold-plated brand what it is — gives no hint that the chain’s down-home image is in any way at risk. “Where else would you go to be with ordinary Canadians,” he said of our politicians’ oft-noted penchant for Tim’s photo ops. “If it were the U.K., it would be a pub. It’s a meeting place for people, one we all know.” Fair enough.

But the question remains: If Tim’s can break into lattes, however it finesses the revolution to mollify diehards like Rex, can Starbucks not sell double-doubles? And if both those things are true, can’t a dog be a cat, or a Liberal a New Democrat — or a Conservative for that matter?

On this one, seems to me, the polling data is ahead of the curve. Liberals, beware.


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Harper leaves behind ghosts of former isolationism

Stephen Harper is a stickler for focused, efficient meetings. So why, pray tell, does he so clearly value the international summit cycle, which to external eyes seems so disorganized and chaotic? Never more so than at this week’s G20 in Cannes, with tiny, shambolic Greece holding a loaded pistol to the temple of the global economy.

It’s a fair question. The partial answer is that Harper relishes being a global player in the company of his peers. But there’s more to it than that. Given the extreme interconnectedness of world finance and Canada’s reliance on trade, the prime minister has had to become a devout multilateralist. Intriguing, for a man who only a decade ago put his name to a letter urging a provincial premier to “build firewalls” around Alberta.

As the Greek mess shows again, there is no way, other than co-operation at the head-of-government level, to even begin to grapple with global problems affecting all. In Cannes the stakes could not be higher: If the assembled leaders fail to somehow bully Greece and other recalcitrant euro states into line, they face a catastrophic breakdown of the European system itself, with cascading effects around the world. All this, because of shoddy management of an economy worth a scant three per cent of eurozone GDP.

Harper himself alluded to this in a speech he gave last week at the Commonwealth meeting in Perth, Australia, in which he set the stage for Cannes. After citing “the very real risk, if appropriate and timely decisions are not made, of a second round of global recession,” the PM waxed uncharacteristically poetic about the famous G20 crisis session in Washington in 2008, as the global financial system faced imminent meltdown:

“They (G20 leaders) recognized that in a globalized economy, a flood engulfing one would soon swamp us all. So even though those 20-some leaders all represented sovereign states, they agreed quickly to a common, synchronized set of actions to chart the same course toward calmer waters. Ideological differences were set aside. Old enmities were not raised. Indeed, if you had arrived from another planet, you never could have guessed which nations had spent decades mired in hostility. Now, you might call that situation the Fellowship of the Lifeboat.”

Here’s what the fellowship of the lifeboat led to; immediately, an international round of stimulus spending to avert a depression; a commitment to collectively reducing deficits and debt; better regulation of banks, with Canada emerging as a model; a renewed dedication to free trade; and the beginnings of an attempt to address global trading imbalances, primarily with China.

Commitment is one thing, follow-through another. The stimulus was politically easy. The austerity portion, reiterated at the Toronto G20 last year as the Black Bloc drew our attention elsewhere, has been much less successful. Debt levels across the developed world have skyrocketed, to the point where several European governments — Greece first in line with Italy and Spain not far behind — face insolvency.

The trouble is that the eurozone shares monetary policy, by dint of the common currency and central bank, but not fiscal policy, which remains under the control of national governments. National governments just can’t resist borrowing huge piles of money to buy votes. For them it’s like catnip, or a crack habit.

In that light, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s rabbit-from-a-hat move to hold a referendum on a $181-billion eurozone bailout smashed a hole in Harper’s good ship Fellowship with a hatchet. That’s because, setting aside platitudes about how the people are always right, direct democracy doesn’t lend itself to crisis management. The likelihood of Greeks choosing an externally imposed plan that brings austerity, with long-term gain but short-term pain, is slim to none. It would be little different in Canada. For evidence Google Rae Days, Ontario, early 1990s.

Hence the intense pressure brought to bear on the Greeks in Cannes. If Papandreou survives the weekend he will abandon his referendum and impose the euro-bailout on his people, whether they support it or not. The primary lever of persuasion will be the assembled leadership of the G20, twisting arms, knocking heads.

Whatever it may have been in the past, this has become a de facto global crisis council, with enormous responsibility that transcends national borders. If the G20 did not exist, we would already be well into the depression its leaders averted three years ago — and are struggling to stave off again.

Small wonder Harper wants to be there.


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Look for Harper to ditch F-35 deal as economy slows

There is nothing edifying about the sight of a minister flailing when he knows there’s blood in the water, and that some of it is bound to be his.

Even the few who are exceptionally good at deflection develop a hunted, perpetually aggrieved look. They’d love nothing better than to angrily lash out at their foes across the floor. They can’t do that because uncontrolled emotion plays poorly on television. So they retreat and evade, repeating paint-by-numbers talking points they figure won’t get them into deeper trouble.

Such has been the case in the House this week as the associate minister of defence in charge of procurement, Julian Fantino, faced renewed peppering from the opposition about the precarious state of the F-35 fighter-bomber procurement. Fantino gamely offered the pro-forma non-answer: This is the best fighter for the Canadian Forces and the government is determined to give the men and women in uniform the best technology possible to do their jobs.

If only it were that simple.

It’s hard to see how this albatross of an acquisition, initiated by the Liberals in the late 1990s, could devolve into an even worse state politically. The Conservatives fought an election in which their rivals did their best to disparage the purchase, and they won a majority anyway. Polls show that Canadians, though leery of the F-35 project specifically, generally approve of the Harper government’s rebuilding of the military. The Tories have earned some goodwill for re-investing in the Canadian Forces, and deservedly so.

That said, the government is in heavy weather with the F-35 now and, for reasons beyond Canadian control, the trouble is growing. The difficult but smart move would be for the PMO to stand tall, turn tail and order a redo, with an open, apolitical competition, such as that held in the recent $35-billion naval-ship procurement.

Liberal leader Bob Rae has said the shipping-contract process set a new standard: He’s right. The F-35 process does not come close to measuring up. In fairness this is not one individual’s fault, but rather an accumulation of bad news that now threatens to reach critical mass, because of debt crises on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s the skinny on this plane: It will be beautiful and lethal, the finest fighter-bomber ever built, when it’s finally flying in air forces around the world. In time the bugs will be ironed out: Too much money has been invested already, mainly by the U.S. government, for there to be any other outcome. But the number of planes, and their cost, remains an open question; for Canada, anywhere between $75 million a plane and $150 million.

And there are other problems: Michael Gilmore, the senior Pentagon official in charge of weapons testing, now wants the test-flight program on the F-35 delayed because of concerns over pilot safety. Meantime, the Pentagon is poised to give the manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin, its latest accounting of what it thinks the F-35 should cost — and clearly, cuts are on the table.

America’s own F-35 program, roughly pegged at 2,400 planes for $380-plus billion U.S., is simply too expensive for the debt-strapped U.S. Treasury.

The program has already suffered a string of delays and cost overruns, prompting such key partners as Australia to mull buying other planes. What happens when the Pentagon itself is forced to delay or curtail development, due to defence budget cuts estimated at $1 trillion U.S. over the next decade?

Ottawa’s commitment to this aircraft is at present just political. There is no signed contract, indeed there won’t be one for at least another three years or so. The ministers have time to go back to the drawing board if they wish to, with no penalty, and hold an open contest.

Here’s why they haven’t, so far: It’s not just about us. Because the price is tied to the number of planes ordered, any cancellation or delay boosts costs for everyone, which has a cascading effect. In sticking to its guns, Canada is attempting to be a reliable ally.

But here’s the kicker: The cascading effect is already upon us, due to economic problems elsewhere. How long can Canadian ministers be expected to strap themselves to this anvil before they cut it loose and pop their chutes?

Harper has often shown an ability to execute tactical retreats with lightning speed, if he feels he’s lost the high ground. Look for that to happen with the F-35, sooner rather than later, as the economic gloom deepens south of the border.


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Canada-U.S. border pact: Where is it?

Beyond the Border, a bilateral trade initiative launched with a splash last winter by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is purported to be a thorough sprucing-up of the continental relationship.

Good idea, long overdue. But where is it?

Since summer’s end, economics wonks on both sides of the 49th Parallel – but mainly the northern side – have waited with bated breath for details of the 30-point plan to be formally unveiled. When that didn’t happen by September the substance of the accord was leaked by sources “not authorized to speak publicly on the matter” – code for bureaucrats permitted to speak on background.

The delay in the ceremonial unveiling, it was reported, was due to scheduling: Obama, a busy guy, could not find time to get together with Harper, also busy but perhaps not quite as busy as Obama, what with the world collapsing around him all the time. And so they’d wait until an opportune moment.

The accord, people familiar with its thrust say, is about process: focusing on areas such as baggage pre-clearance, better co-ordination of border enforcement, reducing customs waits for pre-cleared passengers, and the like. There’s nothing to elicit too extreme a meltdown among nationalists; just low-key, important progress on the details of a trading relationship worth $1.7-billion a day, across a border that has become burdensomely “thicker” since 9/11.

But here we are at Halloween, and still no unveiling. What gives?

According to sources familiar with the talks, the deal is done, has been for some time. They’re still looking for a venue. The Canadian side, that is to say the Prime Minister’s Office, is holding out for a high-profile summit featuring the President and Prime Minister side by side, pens in hand. The Americans, for reasons of their own, are interested in something that looks a little more routine – perhaps on the margins of a larger summit, such as this week’s G20 confab in Cannes, or the APEC summit in Honolulu in mid-November.

But for reasons that remain unclear, there’s no buzz in Ottawa now about this being done at either of those international get-togethers. Indeed, the issue of timing appears to be a black box. U.S. ambassador David Jacobson has previously said it will be soon. Observers in Canada expect it before the end of this year. Beyond that, no one seems to be able to say. Neither, it’s worth noting, is there buzz about the talks having gone off the rails, which you’d expect if they had. There’s just quiet.

This may be just what it appears to be — a matter of putting the final pieces of a complex puzzle in place. The President and the PM must stand together, reinforcing the importance of the relationship for both sides and conferring their mutual blessing. Otherwise, as former Canadian ambassador to Washington Derek Burney says, “it will be nibbled to death in the bureaucracies.” They need to sell the deal.

Fair enough. But at what point does it become imperative for Canada to get this done sooner, not later, lest it be subsumed by the U.S. presidential election cycle and a political dynamic increasingly driven by protectionism?

We know that when times are tough, protectionism flares. It happened in 2008 when Obama was running for president. It is happening now, in spades. It’s not just the ‘buy America’ provisions in Obama’s jobs bill, which flagrantly fly in the face of free trade. Canada recently was stripped of a long-standing exemption from a $5.50 (US) customs fee for travellers entering the U.S. There have been threats of new tariffs on container cargo entering U.S. ports from Canada. With the American economy sputtering, this isn’t going away.

We saw the meal the U.S. media made last summer of Obama’s Canadian-built tour bus. Has anyone in the PMO pondered the likely reaction from factory workers in the U.S. Rust Belt, when Obama stands alongside a Canadian leader and with great fanfare trumpets an even thinner border? Small wonder the President is dodging this particular chore. So, Ottawa must do more to get him to the table.

This is the age of Skype. Surely the bright sparks around Harper can figure out a way to do this virtually, with little loss of impact, and no impediment to either leader’s schedule.

And surely they can find the right levers – perhaps a quiet but clear reminder that Canada is the top export destination for 35 U.S. states, and its biggest foreign supplier of energy — to get Obama’s attention.



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F-35 fighter project runs into heavy weather

The Conservative government’s controversial F-35 jet fighter project, plagued by delays, cost overruns and now economic turmoil in Europe, is at growing risk of being sharply curtailed or shelved — the defence minister’s protestations notwithstanding.

“It just seems like it’s slowly unravelling,” said an industry insider who specializes in aircraft procurement. “It’s a mess.”

Peter MacKay has doggedly championed the Royal Canadian Air Force plan to purchase 65 “fifth-generation” Lockheed Martin Lightning stealth fighters to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s. Last week MacKay sought, with only limited success, to deflect reports that the first batch of planes built by Lockheed will be incapable of communicating in Canada’s far North.

This minister has a knack for projecting blithe confidence. But in this instance he is increasingly offside with other members of the cabinet and with the Prime Minister’s Office, sources familiar with the situation say.

“They expected a whole bunch of kudos for doing (the F-35),” said one. “They believed this was win-win, industrially, that everybody would be happy. It has kind of crept in that it just ain’t so.”

Indeed in defence circles, it is believed that Julian Fantino was installed as under-minister in charge of procurement partly to offset MacKay’s tendency to defer to the senior military brass, in this case the air force, in matters of equipment acquisition. “He is a total advocate of the people in uniform,” an industry insider said. “There have been no challenges (to the military) the whole time he’s been there.”

Be that as it may, MacKay has had an unenviable task, in trying to sell the F-35 purchase to a skeptical public. That’s because, even according to its supporters, it’s been unusual from the start. Since the aircraft is still under development, projections of its cost are estimates only. And the per-plane price tag depends on the number of units ordered for any given year.

That has made the cost an upward-moving target — originally $75-million per plane, now by most independent accounts between $115-million and $150-million — which has been politically costly, especially in a time of budget constraint.

As other members of the international F-35 consortium — including Turkey, the Netherlands, Norway, Israel and Australia — have either delayed or curtailed expectations of the number of planes they will buy, price estimates have skyrocketed. But even the latest figures are just educated guesses.

“The reaction is, where’s the competition, where’s the bidding, and what do you mean you don’t know the price?” acknowledges Senator Colin Kenny, former chair of the Senate defence committee and a strong proponent of the F-35. The federal government, he says, has simply done “a lousy job” of explaining and selling the project to Canadians.

Kenny and other advocates say that when the F-35 finally begins rolling off the line in significant numbers some five years from now, it will be by far the most advanced fighter in the world, with stealth capabilities that confer a new degree of safety on Canadian pilots.

“Why would you buy a (fourth-generation) aircraft that has a clear radar profile, when you can buy one that is much harder to spot on radar, and have your flyers come home?”

Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet, often mentioned as an alternative to the F-35, is still only a “fourth-and-a-half” generation fighter, experts say.

Moreover, in an era of integrated NATO missions, it makes sense for Canada to be flying the same fighters as our allies, and to share in the economic benefits of building them. Kenny estimates that, for a $200-million initial investment, Canadian aerospace manufacturers have already garnered twice that in spinoff contracts.

But there are three elephants in the room.

The first is that, having recently announced a $35-billion naval shipbuilding program that is wildly popular on two coasts, the government is bound to it, regardless of what happens to the global economy. The mammoth contracts for shipyards in Halifax and Vancouver are job engines and vote-winners. If something big has to go, it won’t be ships.

The second is that, with European leaders still struggling with the details of how they’ll solve their debt crisis and prop up their banks, and the European economy slipping into what may be a long recession, orders for F-35s from the eurozone are certain to dwindle further, making the price for Canada even more prohibitive.

The third is that the Pentagon itself, without whose massive order of 2,443 jets the project is impossible, has lately been making noises of serious unhappiness about rising costs. Last May, Senator John McCain, ranking Republican member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. should “start at least considering alternatives” to the F-35.

Given a choice between a rock and a hard place, the federal government could reduce the number of aircraft purchased, thus keeping within its original projected budget window of $9-billion, reiterated by Fantino earlier this month. However, having significantly fewer than 65 aircraft would nullify the rationale for having the fighters in the first place, defence experts say.

“I honestly don’t believe they can go below 65,” said one. “If you do that then you have to change the mission.”



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