Skip to main content

Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks to reporters prior to departing Ottawa for a NATO summit in Lisbon on Nov. 18, 2010.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Peter MacKay appears to be testing Stephen Harper's patience by straying offside on a dispute with an Arab military ally over a base that supplied Canada's war effort in Afghanistan.

Ministers are expected to march in lockstep with cabinet and their prime minister once a government decision has been made. But this week, Mr. MacKay fell out of formation over a bilateral spat that ended with Canadian soldiers kicked out of a secret Mideast base after Mr. Harper refused to give the United Arab Emirates additional landing rights for its airlines in Canada.

On Thursday, one day after he was spotted wearing a "Fly Emirates" baseball cap in apparent defiance of Canada's position - and overheard recounting the dispute's costs - Mr. MacKay offered further thoughts on the matter, telling reporters that Ottawa has to mend relations with the UAE.

"We have some work to do in repairing the relationship with the United Arab Emirates," he said. "Clearly the circumstances under which we left the base require, now, some work."

Questions about the Defence Minister's recent behaviour on this file followed Mr. MacKay on to the Prime Minister's plane on Thursday as he left for a NATO meeting in Portugal - where he'll be expected to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. Topics at the Lisbon gathering will be, among other things, Canada's decision to extend its military effort in Afghanistan.

The Defence Minister's attention-grabbing conduct comes just one week after reports that in October, he discussed a job with a Bay Street law firm, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP. Mr. MacKay denies he's leaving politics.

Speaking before his flight to Portugal, Mr. MacKay refused to discuss a Parliament Hill reporter's Wednesday account of overhearing the minister tell a Conservative senator the decision to deny the UAE extra landing slots has set back relations with the Arab country by 10 years.

Astral Radio's Hill bureau chief Daniel Proussalidis found himself chatting outside Parliament's Centre Block with Senator Michael Meighen and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on Wednesday after a fire alarm cleared the building.

"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 on Toronto Newstalk 1010 Radio's website.

According to Mr. Proussalidis, the Defence Minister's unusually frank comments also included the contention that Canada could have continued using Camp Mirage if Ottawa had granted additional landing slots to the UAE airlines.

Mr. MacKay is believed to be unhappy with Ottawa's UAE decision, but he rebuffed repeated questions about his chat with Mr. Meighen, saying "I don't comment on private conversations."

The Globe and Mail reported in October that the Defence Minister, who had favoured doing more to help the UAE, was cut out of Canada's negotiations on the matter. Mr. Harper ultimately sided with forceful arguments made by former transport minister John Baird against big concessions for the UAE and its airlines, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways.

In his Wednesday encounter with Mr. MacKay, Mr. Proussalidis also recounted that "as I stood with the group, Senator Meighen asked about the [Emirates]cap, and that's when the conversation became interesting. MacKay joked that he wore the cap for Baird."

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Baird defended refusing UAE more landing rights, which the government worried would have unfairly bled intercontinental traffic from Air Canada.

"The government made a difficult decision. I think we did what was right."