It is costing the Harper government an estimated $300-million to close Camp Mirage, the secret airbase in the United Arab Emirates that Canada used as a logistics hub for its troops in Afghanistan, a senior Conservative official confirmed Thursday.
The Canadians were forced to close the base - they officially left this week - as a result of a dispute with the UAE over landing rights at Canadian airports.
In retaliation, the source said, the Prime Minister's Office is banning cabinet ministers from flying Emirates and Etihad Airways, the state-backed airlines involved in the feud.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff demanded in the House of Commons Thursday that the government reveal the cost of closing the base.
"General [Walter]Natynczyk said it was a scramble to get out of there," Mr. Ignatieff charged. "Why should the Canadian military be put through a scramble because of the incompetence of the Prime Minister?"
Defence Minister Peter MacKay refused to reveal the cost, arguing "this is not going to have an operational impact" and saying the Canadian Forces will instead travel through bases in Cyprus and Germany.
The Canadian government had been using the base for free for nine years. But leaving is complicated - there are huge logistical issues, according to the source, including moving equipment and now having to factor in fuel costs for the longer routes between Afghanistan and the alternative bases in Germany and Cyprus.
"The UAE were not charging us to use the port and airfield," the government source said. "So now we pay plus setup costs in new area. Big challenge and big bucks."
Officials peg the total bill at $300-million, the source said. "For six more flights, we could have solved this," the source added, referring to the Canadian landing rights sought by the UAE.
Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae called the cost scandalous. "Canadians are on the hook for $300-million to bail this government out of its own amateur inability to resolve a difference of opinion they had years to fix," he said.
"This is a scandalous and completely avoidable waste of taxpayer dollars, and the responsibility lies squarely on [Foreign]Minister [Lawrence]Cannon for failing to even pick up the phone with his counterparts when he should have."
PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall would not comment on the cost. He also dismissed the report that cabinet ministers had been told not to fly the two UAE airlines, saying he had not heard of the ban.
There was a dispute within the Harper cabinet over the withdrawal, with Mr. MacKay, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan pushing for greater co-operation with the Arab ally.
But government House Leader John Baird, a former transport minister, argued strenuously against allowing the landing rights, according to sources. The Prime Minister ultimately agreed with Mr. Baird, cutting the three other ministers out of negotiations.
The UAE then gave the government a month to vacate the base. As well, the UAE escalated the dispute when it refused Mr. MacKay and Gen. Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, from landing at Camp Mirage or even entering its airspace when the two were returning from Afghanistan after visiting the troops during the Thanksgiving weekend.
The minister and Canada's top soldier had to be rerouted through Europe.