When Canada's left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP) invited me to testify before a mock hearing (on Parliament Hill with only NDP members present) addressing the country's purchase of the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, I was confident I knew what to expect.
I expected the Canadian politicians, like members of the U.S. Congress, to give vaguely informed (sometimes stunningly misinformed) statements about the F-35, even when they agreed with my position. I expected their questions to be read off of staff memos in a manner so clumsy that it was clear the questioner had only the dimmest understanding, if any, of the words he or she was reading. Follow-up questions based on my responses would be a concept the questioner had never seen any use for. In other words, I didn't expect much, but the opportunity to inform the debate in Canada about the high cost and low performance of the F-35 was important; so I accepted the invitation.
My expectations were completely wrong. The differences between Canadian politicians and members of Congress are utterly stunning. Unlike here, oversight in the Canadian Parliament is alive and well. In Canada, I found two political behaviors unheard of in the United States: Opposition politicians actually try to understand the issue they are talking about, and they take offense at being lied to.
My re-orientation started when, lo and behold, without giving long, windy, and poorly informed opening statements, the parliamentarians asked questions directly relevant to my testimony about the cost to buy and operate the Canadian version of the F-35. They were not reading off or cribbing from memos but were reacting to what I had said; we had an actual discussion, one member at a time. They probed my estimate of the potential $200 million-per-aircraft cost -- not the $75 million Canada's Department of National Defense (DND) had been advertising. They also poked at my prediction that the cost to operate the F-35, after purchase, would be at least three times DND's original estimate.
The members' questions were constructed by themselves on the spot and reflected that several of them had done their homework. For example, Matthew Kellway of Ontario had clearly read and understood an article in Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute's journal, written by the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, questioning whether radar-evading "stealth" technology was viable against current and future countermeasures -- a key question in Canada, where "stealth" dominates the debate about the F-35 almost as much as cost.
Most remarkable was their predisposition to listen, integrate the new information they heard, synthesize it to formulate a new understanding, and then ask more questions.
It was an utterly stunning contrast to what happens in Congress these days. The Canadians saw the mock hearing not as yet another opportunity to pose in front of the cameras with a script, pretending to be interested but really waiting for the witness to be quiet so the member could say -- or read -- something more, but as an opportunity to learn and discuss.
After the mock hearing, the staffer of the parliamentarian who had convened the event (Malcolm Allen of Ontario) informed me that Mr. Allen, a senior member, had a total staff of just four people. As a former U.S. Senate staffer, I was dumbfounded, but that explained a lot.
Members of the Canadian Parliament are not surrounded by an incessant beehive of the 20 or so staff people that every U.S. representative has or the 50 to 100 that every senator has. Members of Congress have people literally telling them where to go every 30 minutes, handing them talking points, and stuffing their heads with a constant stream of memos telling them what to think -- or rather what the staffer thinks the member wants to be told. This passive and self-serving approach to information dominates Capitol Hill: the principals expect to be fed advice and information at every event to enable them to get through it sounding as if they are in command of the substance. They go through the day like wind-up dolls, dishing out what they are served by their horde of handlers. By contrast, the Canadians walked into the mock hearing ready to discuss the subject and to listen and probe, not posture; that both the press and the public were there did not override their intellect with impulses to primp self-admiringly.
I was given a second dose of this dedication to substance when I was invited to a member's office later in the day. This turned out to be with three members, and rather than go through a short glad-handing thanking me for my testimony, we talked through the issues for another two hours, with Member Jack Harris of Newfoundland and Labrador leading much of the questioning.
The result of the Canadian approach is a propensity to uncover when Parliament is deceived and an understanding of how to react appropriately. Last year, Canada's DND was insisting the unit cost of their F-35s would be about $75 million and the total to both buy and operate all 65 aircraft would be about $19 billion. Suspicious, some opposition parliamentarians asked the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO, an organization analogous to the US Congressional Budget Office) to look at costs. PBO estimated a per-aircraft cost of up to $148 million and a total cost of $29.3 billion.