For the third time in four months, Peter MacKay found himself facing accusations he’s spending public dollars too freely – an awkward track record for a Harper cabinet minister during an era of belt-tightening in Ottawa.
A taxpayer watchdog Thursday released bills obtained under access-to-information law showing the Defence Minister’s travel expenses last year include a $1,452-per-night stay at a luxury hotel in Munich and a $770-per-night bill for accommodation in Istanbul.
Mr. MacKay’s staff managed to find far cheaper accommodation than their boss at the same Istanbul Ceylon Intercontinental, the Canadian Taxpayer Federation found. The aides stayed in $276-per-night rooms at the InterContinental – less than half what the minister was charged.
The controversial expenses are more political grief for Mr. MacKay, who caught flak earlier this fall for asking a military chopper to airlift him from a fishing vacation and for racking up more flights on government VIP jets than any other minister but Stephen Harper.
“Peter is becoming this Parliament’s crown prince of pork,” NDP MP Pat Martin said. “This government is broke. We can’t have a globe-trotting Minister of Defence, living in the lap of luxury like some kind of a Gucci-shoes Conservative gadfly from the 1980s.”
Mr. MacKay defended the Munich bill as the cost of staying close to a major 2010 security conference he was attending in the German city.
“Canada books rooms at the same hotel where the conference takes place, where the majority of participants stay,” he told the Commons. “Nation-to-nation meetings at conferences such as this advance the interests of Canada and advance the interests of the hardworking men and women who serve our country around the world. I was proud to represent Canada.”
The same security meeting is taking place at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in 2012, and rates for a room during the Feb. 3-5 period run as low as $364 a night if booked now.
As for Istanbul, Mr. MacKay’s staff explained the difference in the cost of the minister’s room and his aides’ rooms by pointing out he needs a bigger space to host official visitors.
Mr. MacKay has become a favourite target for opposition accusations of excess in an era where the government is trying to squeeze billions of dollars in savings from Ottawa’s deficit-ridden books. Repeated revelations about his spending have spawned speculation that players in the military are trying to undermine him as he prepares to recommend significant reductions in defence spending.
While the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is avowedly non-partisan, several of its former staff members have become Conservative staffers, candidates or MPs. The group often criticizes the Conservative government from the right, urging it to be more fiscally responsible.
The group’s national director, Gregory Thomas, said the organization requested the travel bills after news of Mr. MacKay’s fishing-vacation airlift broke in September, to “see what else he’s been up to.”
Mr. Thomas suggested the minister’s colleagues “have to be a little choked” to read stories this fall about Mr. MacKay being nearly the top user of the government’s VIP jets, given that the Tories have tried to restrict overall use of the planes.