F-35 purchase continues to dominate debate in Canadian election

11:00, April 11, 2011      

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by Mary Bourrie, Zhang Dacheng

The Canadian government's plan to buy a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets has become an important campaign issue, with Prime Minster Stephen Harper defending the decision again Sunday.

His challenger, main opposition Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, is telling voters that the F-35s will cost the cash-strapped Canadian government much more than the 75 million Canadian dollars per plane claimed by Harper.

Ignatieff points to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that claims the cost of the planes is now about 156 million U.S. dollars per plane.

Since Friday, when the issue first came up, Harper, who leads the governing Conservative Party, has argued Canada' s contracts with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. military protect Canada from huge cost over-runs.

Canada's 65 F-35s, which will replace its fleet of F-18 twin-engine fighters purchased in the 1980s, are expected to cost between 12 billion and 20 billion Canadian dollars over the next twenty years. The Canadian Parliamentary Budget Officer said recently that the real cost of the F-35s will likely be 29.3 billion Canadian dollars over 30 years.

"We are sheltered from research and development costs," Harper said at a brief news conference in Quebec, where he is making a campaign tour before returning to the national capital to prepare for two televised leaders' debates.

Both the Conservatives and Liberals sent out "talking point" e-mails to the Canadian media on Saturday.

The Liberals said U.S. law prevents foreign countries from buying U.S. weaponry for less than the Pentagon pays for it. The Conservatives insist the Liberals, if they are elected, would have no choice but to buy the F-35s, because Canada needs new fighters soon.

The Canadian government began contributing to the F-35's development in 1996, when the Liberals were in power, the Conservatives noted.

"On the F-35s, I think we've been clear: there have been detailed briefings from the Department of National Defense on this, there's a memorandum of understanding that's posted (online). We are sheltered from research and development costs," Harper said.

Harper told reporters in French that the agreements mean the U.S. will pay extra development costs and Canada will take delivery of the planes at a fixed price.

"This is a good deal for the country, the fantasy is on the other side. That somehow they're going to come up with some airplane out of thin air and they don't even know what airplane, they're still going to buy planes they say but they don't know airplane and they don't have any agreement," Harper said.

Harper also said his government will make small cuts in spending to eliminate the country's 45 billion Canadian dollars budget deficit. He has promised to balance the country's books by 2015, but will not say which programs and agency budgets will be cut.

"The operational savings we are looking for are modest," Harper said during a campaign stop in Quebec on Sunday. "Out of 80 billion (Canadian dollars) of operating costs over three years, we're going to shave five per cent off of that," he said.

"I have told you before, a couple of the areas we're going to focus on. This is what people expect of government. To keep operating costs under control and to continue to deliver services," he said, while denying he would cut "vital" programs.

Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which may hold the balance of power in Parliament if the Liberals or Conservatives do not win a majority of seats in the May 2 election, unveiled its platform Sunday.

The platform, titled Giving Your Family A Break: Practical First Steps, will cost 8.9 billion Canadian dollars in the first year, but the NDP leader Jack Layton said he will deliver a balanced federal budget by 2014-15.

He promised 25,000 new daycare spaces and better tax breaks for university and college students. He also promised to freeze tuition fees.

The New Democrats draw a large amount of its support from the country' s post-secondary students and from labor unions.

He also promised, if elected, to pressure banks to cut the interest rates on credit cards, give every Canadian access to broadband Internet and regulate Canada's cell phone companies, who charge some of the highest rates in the world.

Layton promised tax breaks to help small businesses create jobs and hire more employees. He also promised money to hire 2,500 more police officers and 200 food inspectors.

The platform allocated money to build infrastructure in cities, with 500 million Canadian dollars pegged to improve urban transit systems and 100 million Canadian dollars for affordable housing.

The NDP says the plan will result in a 4.2 billion Canadian dollars surplus, 1.9 billion Canadian dollars over what the Conservatives are offering by 2014-15.

Meanwhile, a poll by Nanos Research for the CTV television network and the Globe and Mail newspaper showed the distance between the two major parties is continuing to shrink, with the Conservatives now leading the Liberals by less than nine percentage points.

The poll found Liberal strength is starting to grow in Quebec at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Neither of the big national parties has been able to win a majority of Quebec's 75 seats in the 308-member House of Commons since 1988.

Harper's Conservative government was defeated March 25 by the opposition parties' non-confidence move, which found the government in contempt of parliament.

The parliament was dissolved the following day and Canada's 41st federal election, the fourth in the past seven years, has been slated for May 2 with 308 seats to be decided in the House of Commons.

Source: Xinhua
 
 
     
 
 
 
     
 
 
 
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