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'Clumsy bungling' on UAE dogs Defence Minister in absentia

Somewhere in Portugal, Peter MacKay's ears are burning.

Although the Defence Minister wasn't in the Commons for Question Period on Thursday (he is on his way to Portugal for a NATO summit) he came under heavy scrutiny from both the Liberals and NDP, who led off with questions about his recent behaviour - and sartorial choices.

This, after Mr. MacKay was spotted by a Parliament Hill reporter Wednesday boldly wearing a red "Fly Emirates" baseball cap and overheard jokingly criticizing his colleague, Government House Leader John Baird.

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In addition, he was heard telling Conservative Senator Michael Meighen the government's decision to refuse more landing rights to two United Arab Emirates airlines had set back diplomatic relations by a decade.

Not surprisingly, this caused an uproar in the Commons with the opposition sensing some government vulnerability.

"The Minister of Defence continues to vent publicly and rightly so about the foolish, clumsy bungling of international landing rights in Canada," deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale charged. "That mismanagement with respect to the United Arab Emirates has badly damaged Canadian relations with what should be a valued ally in our struggle against terrorism."

Mr. Goodale demanded that Mr. Baird admit he was wrong to push for the UAE air carriers to be denied those rights. But the deputy Liberal leader didn't stop there: He accused Mr. Baird of being so wrong in denying the landing rights that the Defence Minister is "still fuming about it a month later and talking with Bay Street lawyers about leaving government."

And then Jack Layton weighed in.

"They've decided to leave our troops in Afghanistan for three more years without a vote of this House," the NDP Leader charged. "And now a spat in the Conservative cabinet is putting at risk our troops. If the Defence Minister had spent less time advertising for Fly Emirates here on Parliament Hill, perhaps he would have had a solution to the problem of Camp Mirage. What does the government say about the Minister of Defence?"

Mr. Baird - filling in for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is on that plane over the Atlantic with Mr. MacKay - would have none of it.

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No, he wouldn't admit that he was wrong. Nor did he have anything to say about the Minister of Defence. Rather, he asserted that he and his cabinet colleagues made a decision in Canada's best interests.

"The Government of Canada has an important responsibility to stand up and do what's best for Canada and that's exactly what we did with respect to this regard," Mr. Baird told the Commons.

Last month, The Globe and Mail reported that the Prime Minister cut Mr. MacKay out of negotiations over extra landing slots for the UAE air carriers. The Defence Minister had argued at the cabinet table in favour of the Arabian Gulf state.

The Canadian military had been using Camp Mirage, a secret airbase in the UAE, free of charge for nine years. It had served as a staging area for our troops going to Afghanistan.

But Mr. Baird, who had previously served as transport minister, argued strenuously against granting additional landing rights. He won the day.

The repercussions were quick and pointed. The UAE is demanding that Canadian tourists get visas to travel to their country and it is estimated it will cost Ottawa $300-milli on to leave the base and relocate to another region.

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Life of late has also not been easy for Mr. MacKay. There have been reports the Prime Minister cut him out of discussions around Canada's role in Afghanistan after the scheduled pull-out next July. And last week there was word he wanted out of the Harper government and had met twice in October - once in the Ottawa area for a dinner and another time in Toronto - with officials from a Bay Street law firm.

Mr. MacKay has denied he is leaving office but he has not addressed questions about whether he met with the law firm and why. For now, at least, he's out of the firing line in Lisbon.

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