Defence Minister Peter MacKay was overheard telling a Conservative senator Wednesday that Canada could have continued using a secret military base in the Middle East if Ottawa had granted a request for more landing airport slots to two United Arab Emirates airlines.
According to Astral Radio bureau chief Daniel Proussalidis, who witnessed and blogged the conversation on Toronto Newstalk 1010's website, Mr. MacKay also told Senator Michael Meighen that the dispute - which saw Canada kicked off a military base in the UAE - set back relations with the Arab country by a decade.
Mr. Proussalidis said the incident unfolded outside Parliament Hill's Centre Block Wednesday morning following a fire alarm that emptied the building and left journalists mixing with politicians outside.
He wrote on Newstalk 1010's website that after he had introduced himself to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Senator Meighen, Mr. MacKay approached wearing a "Fly Emirates" baseball cap.
Emirates is one of the carriers involved in the dispute. The UAE ousted Canadian soldiers from a logistics base used to supply Ottawa's Afghanistan mission because Ottawa refused to grant extra landing rights at Canadian airports to Emirates and another UAE airline.
Reached Wednesday evening, Mr. MacKay's office did not deny Mr. Proussalidis's account of the minister's remarks. MacKay spokesman Jay Paxton declined to comment on Mr. Proussalidis's reporting, saying only that "I can't discuss issues that relate to cabinet confidences."
Pressed on the matter, Mr. Paxton added: "I think a private conversation was overheard."
Mr. MacKay's overheard comments offer more evidence that the Defence Minister disagreed with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to refuse more landing rights for UAE carriers.
The incident follows reports that in October Mr. MacKay discussed a job with a Bay Street law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP - including an international posting. The Defence Minister has rejected suggestions he is leaving but has not addressed the reported discussions with Gowlings.
According to Mr. Proussalidis, Mr. MacKay walked up to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Senator Meighen Wednesday morning after the journalist had started chatting with the pair.
"It was all small talk until Defence Minister Peter MacKay walked up and joined the conversation, wearing a red 'Fly Emirates' baseball cap on his head and a grin on his face," Mr. Proussalidis wrote.
"As I stood with the group, Senator Meighen asked about the cap, and that's when the conversation became interesting. MacKay joked that he wore the cap for [minister John]Baird," he wrote.
As The Globe and Mail has reported, Mr. Baird, previously federal Transport Minister, lobbied hard against granting UAE carriers, including Emirates, extra landing rights in Canada. He and Mr. MacKay had disagreed on the matter. Mr. MacKay, as The Globe has reported, wanted to grant extra slots at Canadian airports to UAE carriers.
"MacKay went on to tell Meighen that Canada could have continued to use a military base in the UAE for free ... if only it had granted those slots. Then the defence minister suggested it would take 10 years to repair the relationship with the UAE."
Ultimately, however, the Astral radio reporter wrote, Mr. MacKay appeared resigned to the outcome of the dispute, calling the matter "spilled milk" in conversation with the senator and Mr. Flaherty.
The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on the account of Mr. MacKay's comments.
Update Mr. MacKay addressed the airline feud and Canada's eviction from Camp Mirage on Thursday.
"We have some work to do in repairing the relationship with the UAE," the Defence Minister said as he left Ottawa with the Prime Minister for a NATO summit in Portugal.
"Clearly, the circumstances under which we left the base require now some work," he said, according to The Canadian Press.
"My primary concern is that we continue to have operational efficiencies, we have to continue to supply personnel, equipment going into the Afghanistan theatre."