PARLIAMENT HILL—Nearly 80 per cent of Canadians who are aware of the Conservative government’s plan to spend at least $9-billion to buy F-35 stealth fighter jets believe the project should be scrapped, a public opinion poll taken the day after last week’s federal budget found.
The Forum Research survey found only one in five Canadians of voting age supported the F-35 acquisition, which Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has estimated will cost nearly $18-billion including lifespan maintenance for what was to have been a fleet of 65 new fighter jets to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 Hornets.
The survey views opposing the F-35 acquisition ranged from purchasing another jet, doing something else with the money and not buying new fighter jets, to holding an open competition to select new planes.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson is set to table a report on the F-35 project in Parliament on Tuesday.
Support for the F-35 was highest among Conservative Party supporters, with 35 per cent supporting the acquisition.
“That’s quite an indictment by the public,” NDP MP Matthew Kellway (Beaches-East York, Ont.) told The Hill Times, saying the government is likely aware of public opinion on the F-35, following recent reports of rising and production delays at the project led by the Texas-based U.S. aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin Corp.
Mr. Kellway and Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) said the government is continuing to send mixed signals about the fate Canadian participation in the project. Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.) reiterated on Monday during Question Period that the government has not yet signed a purchase contract with Lockheed Martin, after a previous Liberal government signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. and a consortium of several countries to develop the so-called fifth-generation fighter.
The memorandum of understanding contemplates a withdrawal by any of the partners, including the U.S. government, with 90 days notice and limited costs.
The Forum Research survey of 1,675 voting-age Canadians Friday, March 30, asked respondents whether they were aware of the plan to buy 65 of the “fifth generation stealth fighter jets, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.”
Of the 966 voting-age Canadians who were aware of the program in such detail, only 21 per cent thought the government should go ahead with the purchase as planned. Of the 1,675 Canadians who were surveyed, 56 per cent were aware of the plan to buy the F-35. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 per cent in 19 out of 20 times.
Forty per cent of those who were aware of the plan said the government should hold an open competition for a new fighter jet, with another 10 per cent agreeing with the statement that the government should simply purchase another fighter jet. Fifteen per cent said they do not think Canada needs new fighter jets, 12 per cent said the government should do something else with the money, 10 per cent said the government should purchase another fighter jet and three per cent said they didn’t know what the government should do.
Opposition for the F-35 project was highest in Quebec, where 18 per cent of respondents said Canada should do something else with the money and another 27 per cent said Canada doesn’t need new fighter jets. In Ontario, 43 per cent of the respondents who were aware of the program said the government should hold an open competition for a new fighter jet, with 11 per cent saying Canada should do something else with the money and 11 per cent saying Canada doesn’t need new fighter jets.
Even among respondents who declared the Conservative Party as their current federal party preference, only 35 per cent said the purchase should go ahead as planned. Support for an open competition to replace the aging CF-18s was highest among Liberal Party supporters, at 57 per cent, with Conservative supporters next at 41 per cent. Thirty-nine per cent of NDP supporters were in favour of an open competition.
Support to go ahead with the F-35 acquisition was highest in Alberta, where 31 per cent of the respondents supported the program.
Conservative MP John Williamson (New Brunswick Southwest, N.B.) said the government has to remain open to other options.
“I don’t think governments lose when they show some flexibility,” Mr. Williamson, a former communications director in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's (Calgary Southwest, Alta) office, told The Hill Times.
“If the circumstances change, there’s nothing wrong with anyone changing their mind,” said Mr. Williamson, also a former director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “I think it would reflect well, but having said that, if this is deemed to be the best plane, we ought to press on with the purchase despite what the opposition might object to.”
Mr. Williamson said all governments need to look at the bottom line. “There are two angles to this. One is ensuring we can patrol our air space and protect our sovereignty, at the same time we have a duty to taxpayers as well,” he said.
Mr. McKay said continuing delays and rising costs in the F-35 program suggest the Conservative government did not scrutinize the plan carefully before announcing in 2010 it would go ahead with the purchase: “The sense is it is the military that drove the specs and the government collapsed like a cheap house of cards and went with what the military wanted, without really asking some rigorous questions.”
Mr. Kellway said the government has recently sent “mixed signals” about the fate of Canada's role in the F-35 project, with Mr. Fantino confirming at a recent meeting of the Commons national defence committee that the government has established a project team to consider alternatives.
"Canada has been a partner in the joint strike fighter program for the past 15 years, started by the Liberal government of the day. We have not signed a contract for a purchase at the flexibility we need to purchase aircraft in the years when it will be most affordable. Ultimately, we will replace Canada's aging CF-18 aircraft and will do so within our allocated budget," Mr. Fantino said in the House. "We have not as yet signed a contract to purchase any aircraft and we will ensure we will have the right aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force."
The Hill Times
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