Prime Minister Stephen Harper was forced to defend his Defence Minister Friday after e-mails surfaced to suggest there was something not quite right about Peter MacKay’s explanation to Parliament that was airlifted on a helicopter from a friend’s fishing lodge as part of a search-and-rescue demonstration.
Mr. Harper, who was in Burlington, Ont., to open an arts centre, was asked by reporters to explain what message it sends to Canadians if a minister can mislead the House of Commons and there are no consequences for his actions.
Mr. Harper replied that the government has been very clear. “The minister was called back from his vacation and used government aircraft only for government business. And that is appropriate.”
Mr. MacKay has told Parliament he took the flight because it was an opportunity to join in a search-and-rescue training exercise.
But records released this week by the Department of National Defence show that, three days before the controversial 2010 chopper ride, Mr. MacKay's office requested a helicopter on the grounds he had a last-minute need to “unexpectedly” head to London, Ont.
Military officials noted in an e-mail that the helicopter was not necessary because the Gander Airport was just two hours by boat and car from the fishing camp.
“The documentary evidence confirms that the Minister of Defence is having some trouble with the truth,” deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale told the Commons during Question Period Friday.
“Military officers say the story about showcasing search-and-rescue helicopters is – quote – ‘a guise’ to hide a minister wrongfully commandeering defence equipment for his own personal use,” Mr. Goodale said. “The definition of guise is pretense, make believe, and this one costs tens of thousands of dollars. When first-nations children are living in desperate conditions at Attawapiskat, why does this government defend such waste and dishonesty?”
Mr. MacKay was not in the House, so it was left to Peter Van Loan to reply. The Government House Leader said there was nothing new in the e-mails and the helicopter was used only when Defence Minister was called away from his vacation on government business.
“Our government has reduced average annual spending on minister’s Challenger [jet]flights by some 80 per cent compared with the previous Liberal government,” Mr. Van Loan said, accusing Mr. Goodale, a former Liberal minister, of having used the Challengers as a “personal taxi” to get back to his Regina riding every weekend.
But Mr. Goodale was not the only opposition MP who wanted to know about Mr. MacKay’s helicopter lift. Rosane Doré, a New Democrat from Quebec, said it is clear that the Defence Minister’s “limo ride” was not a demonstration.
“The military says they only did it at the minister’s request. He was lifted from his friend’s fishing lodge in a basket. Our crews crossed their fingers and hoped the helicopter wouldn’t be needed to respond to an actual emergency,” Ms. Doré told the Commons.
“Either the minister is saying the military is lying,” she said, “or he is misleading this House.”
The e-mails show that one senior Defence officer raised early concerns about public fallout of the Minister’s flight.
“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.”
Col. Ploughman, for his part, adamantly advised against ferrying the minister in a search-and-rescue helicopter in his capacity as direct of the Canadian Forces aerospace operations centre in Winnipeg.
“Given the potential for negative press though, I would likely recommend against it, especially in view of the fact the air force receives (or at least used to) regular access-to-information requests specifically targeting travel on Canadian Forces aircraft by ministers,” the senior officer said in an e-mail discussion about the MacKay request.
“If we are tasked to do this, we of course will comply,” he said.
The air force ended up conducting a reconnaissance flight ahead of the actual pickup to find a suitable landing spot near the Burnt Rattle fishing camp on the Gander River. It could not find one and chose to pick up the Defence Minister in a hoist after deciding the area was “unsuitable to conduct a landing in close enough proximity.”
Together, the reconnaissance flight and the MacKay helicopter trip cost thousands of dollars. National Defence says the Cormorant's total costs exceed $32,000 per flying hour.