Defence Minister Peter MacKay MacKay is being accused by opposition MPs of using a Canadian Forces helicopter as his private shuttle service when he had the chopper pick him up last year from private salmon-fishing lodge along the Gander River in Newfoundland.
“He feels he is entitled to use vital lifesaving equipment for his own personal limousine and we’d like for him to answer to it,” Scott Simms, a Liberal MP from Newfoundland, said during Question Period in the House of Commons on Thursday.
The accusation related to a CTV report that said Mr. MacKay used a one of the three Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters available in Newfoundland to lift him from the lodge, where he was spending a private vacation.
It was Mr. MacKay who authorized General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, to take a government jet to meet his family last year on a Caribbean vacation.
“The Prime Minister has suggested that the Chief of Defence Staff pay back the money for his personal flights,” Mr. Simms said. “Will the Minister of Defence do the same, pay back the $16,000 and apologize?”
Military sources told CTV that the order to collect MacKay came from the Defence Minister's own office. DND documents say the total annual cost per flying hour is $32,232 to operate a Cormorant helicopter, and Mr. MacKay's flight was about 30 minutes long.
The Defence Minister says he was simply taking the opportunity to get to better know search-and-rescue operations.
“I was in fact in Gander in July of 2010 on a personal visit with friends that I paid for,” he told the House. “Three days into the visit, I participated in a search-and-rescue demonstration with 103 Squadron in 9-wing Gander. I shortened my stay by a day to take part in that demonstration and later flew on to government business in Ontario.”
The search-and-rescue technicians have apparently been lobbying for replacements for their fixed-wing Buffalo aircraft, had been urging the minister for some time to participate in a chopper demonstration.
But Jack Harris, the defence critic for the NDP who also comes from Newfoundland, said Mr. MacKay used the helicopter as his own private chauffeur service.
“This government is paying consultants to tell them how to save money but the Minister of Defence used a helicopter that should be on standby for search-and-rescue to pick him up from a personal fishing trip,” said Mr. Harris.
Mr. Mackay replied that, had any emergency arisen that required search-and-rescue assets, the helicopter would have immediately diverted. “I think as Minister of National Defence, I should familiarize myself at every opportunity with the important work of those who perform these daily roles,” he said.
Mr. Harris was unmoved by the minister’s answer. “Being picked up, at a cost of $16,000, from a fishing camp,” he said, “is not the way you learn how search-and-rescue helicopters operate.”