Defence Minister Peter MacKay is considering legal action against MPs who accused him of lying about a ride he took aboard a search-and-rescue helicopter.
Opposition members have called for Mr. MacKay to apologize and even to resign over his use of military resources to shuttle him to the airport in Gander from a personal vacation at a remote Newfoundland fishing lodge.
Documents released last week showed some National Defence staff predicted the trip could be perceived badly, with one suggesting the pick-up was only to be under the “guise” of a search-and-rescue exercise. The cost of the flight has been estimated at $16,000.
Mr. MacKay has said the 30-minute trip was pre-planned and that he’d been waiting for the opportunity to check out the work of the search-and-rescue team in the region. He said his personal vacation was cut short by government business in London, Ont.
Some MPs, including Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel and Liberal MP Marc Garneau have said Mr. MacKay “lied” to the House of Commons about the trip when he initially answered questions about it earlier in the fall.
Search-and-rescue operations on the East Coast have been under severe strain because of chronic technical difficulties with the fleet of Cormorant helicopters. A briefing note to Mr. MacKay in 2010 warned that the Cormorant's availability was “barely adequate” to meet the search-and-rescue (SAR) requirements.
Two men involved in the pick-up are now publicly backing the Defence Minister.
A military technician who hoisted Mr. MacKay into the helicopter as it hovered near the lodge said it was entirely positive that the minister was actively involved with the work of the search-and-rescue team.
“As a SAR Tech, I appreciate the support the [Minister of National Defence]provides the [Canadian Forces]and I welcome future opportunities to conduct this style of contact training with any member of the government,” Warrant Officer Morgan Biderman said in an email sent to the Defence Department's public affairs office Wednesday.
“The positive aspects of Minister MacKay becoming actively involved in our training and the absolute trust he puts in the personnel of the Air Force, is what need to be emphasized! If it has a spin off benefit of transporting him-them, where they need to be, I consider it a win-win for all concerned!”
The pilot who flew the helicopter and commanded the Cormorant squadron told the iPolitics news website Wednesday that the trip was legitimate, given that it occurred during a regularly scheduled training flight and would have gone ahead with or without Mr. MacKay.
“This was a training flight that we were going to participate in,” said retired major Stephen Reid. “If the minister was able to slide his way in, in some fashion, that was fine with us.”
He added that the hoist technician, WO Biderman, needed the training.
Mr. MacKay's office says statements like that show the minister was telling the truth when he said he was taking advantage of an opportunity to participate in an exercise.
“Minister MacKay has had his character and personal reputation attacked,” spokesman Jay Paxton said. “Minister MacKay is looking into legal options against those who have attacked his integrity.”
Who exactly Mr. MacKay is considering suing is unclear. Some MPs accused the Defence Minister of lying outside the Commons, where they do not benefit from parliamentary privilege. Others, such as Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, used terms such as “concocting the truth.”
Still, documents released to the Toronto Star under access-to-information legislation suggest air force officials had examined more options for Mr. MacKay's trip than just the Cormorant helicopters.
The documents showed scenarios were considered that included sending a crew from CFB Gagetown, or a CH-146 Griffon from Goose Bay, Nfld. Both options were ruled out because they were too far away.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has defended Mr. MacKay by saying that flight was legitimate because the minister had been called back for government duties.