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Time for 'mature' debate on defence needs and purchases in Canada, experts say

OTTAWA - A panel of defence experts says it's time for a "mature" public debate about how best Canada's economy can benefit from the billions of dollars being spent on the country's military.

Canada 2020, a non-partisan think tank, held a discussion today on defence procurement, a seemingly endless source of political frustration for the Harper government.

Sahir Khan, a former high-ranking staffer in the parliamentary budget office, says the number of failed and delayed procurements, such the recent cancellation of a $2-billion armoured vehicle program, shows the country is stuck in a rut.

A high-profile report on defence spending last year gave suggestions on how to leverage the anticipated $240 billion in planned equipment purchases to the benefit of Canadian defence contractors and companies.

Khan says there is a premium to be paid for building certain military equipment in Canada, such as ships, and there needs to be a public conversation about whether that something the country is prepared to accept.

He says other countries do it, pointing to Japan, a country that was prepared to accept the higher cost of building its F-16 jet fighters at home.

Dave Perry, an associate professor at Carleton University, says the Chretien government slashed National Defence and Public Works procurement offices in the 1990s and the system has never fully recovered.

Ray Castelli, an executive and former official in Brian Mulroney's government, says defence purchases are always a political football, and in the Canadian system of procurement, they are always controversial.

He says the system needs to improve, but other countries look to Canada for guidance and it's good thing the government takes its time to carefully consider purchases.

The Harper government has faced political heat for a series of delays, including replacements for the country's Sea King helicopters and trucks for the army.

The plan to replace the air force's CF-18s with the F-35 stealth fighter struck a real nerve when the auditor general accused National Defence and Public Works of understating the multi-billion dollar cost and failing to do their homework.

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