Department of National Defence resources are now being poured into finding ways of extricating Peter MacKay from the controversy he’s created over his 2010 helicopter adventure.
Mr. MacKay’s officials have been aggressively searching for ammunition against the opposition and also shopping around stories that put the Defence Minister in a better light. This, after several days of pummeling by the opposition in the House of Commons.
Ministerial officials dug up one 1992 story that appeared in the Toronto Star in which then-premier Bob Rae used an Ontario Provincial Police helicopter to “fly him to and from his family cottage during the Victoria Day weekend.”
Asked about the story Wednesday, Mr. Rae, now Interim Liberal Leader, scoffed at the Tories..
“Haha. Like every premier since John Robarts, I had an OPP detail and travel arrangements were made by them,” he said. “There were no search-and-rescue operations, so they’re pretty desperate if they’re grasping at this.”
The story notes that Mr. Rae had just returned from a 10-day business trip to Japan and was to leave for a Great Lakes governors meeting in Ohio the next day.
He pleaded “a need for time with his family,” noting due to his travel schedule as premier he had not seen his children for eight days.
A Liberal MPP nonetheless criticized him for using the OPP helicopter as a “taxi service to his private family retreat.” Mr. Rae has a cottage on Big Rideau Lake in Eastern Ontario.
A Defence official, meanwhile, wrote Tuesday in the subject line of the email to reporters that contained the Star story: “Doesn’t look like Bob Rae apologized for using government aircraft to go on personal time.”
Mr. Rae has been particularly tough on Mr. MacKay in Question Period. On Monday, he “all but accused Mr. MacKay of lying, saying the e-mails make it “very clear that those comments by the Minister of National Defence are simply not true.”
Expect that this information will be used against Mr. Rae if more questions are asked about the Defence Minister’s use of a helicopter in Question Period Wednesday. Mr. MacKay, however, won’t be there to answer as he is in Brussels for a NATO meeting.
The minister has argued it was totally legitimate for him to use the helicopter to get him out of a Gander River fishing camp, where he was on vacation, to a plane that was taking him to a government event in London, Ont. He has also argued the flight was part of a previously planned military training exercise.
In addition to the 19-year-old Rae story, Defence officials were also pushing a story to reporters in which a retired Canadian Forces officer defended the minister’s use of the helicopter:
Stephen Reid, a 20-year member of the Canadian Forces who retired in October, told iPolitics that MacKay’s participation was a ‘win-win’ for the crew and the minister. The retired major served as commanding officer for 103 Search and Rescue Squadron for two years.
“This was a training flight that we were going to participate in,” Reid said in an interview. “If the minister was able to slide his way in, in some fashion, that was fine with us.”
However, emails released last week by National Defence have contradicted Mr. MacKay’s version and that of this retired officer. They revealed concern about how the minister’s helicopter use would look to everyday citizens.
“When the guy who's fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cell phone to video[tape]the minister getting on board and post it on YouTube, who will be answering the mail on that one?” Colonel Bruce Ploughman asked in an e-mail.
A lieutenant-colonel involved in preparing the flight went on to describe the July 9, 2010, chopper trip as being conducted “under the guise of ... SAR [search and rescue]training.”