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The Globe and Mail

The losing politics of ministerial plane use

Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Conservative Party of Canada knows that the politics of government plane usage is the low-hanging fruit of oppositional politics. Lord knows when the Tories were in opposition they loved teeing off on Liberal ministers who used the Challenger jets.

Turn about being fair play in politics, the Conservative government, and in particular Defence Minister Peter MacKay, are now being strongly condemned for using the same jets those scoundrel Liberals used. Whether you use the jet once or you use it a hundred times is irrelevant. The debate, if you want to call it that, is mostly about payback and comeuppance in a time when fiscal restraint is the mantra of government and the opposition has a limited arsenal of substantive contra policy arguments to make. It also makes entertaining copy and is much easier to understand than global fiscal policy challenges, which is where we should really being having a discussion.

Yet symbolism is an important thing in politics. Whether a minister is taking a government jet to a repatriation ceremony, as MacKay has often done, or a key meeting on defence policy matters little when titillation is achieved by simply playing the great game of gotcha to get the shot of the minister on the government plane.

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It just doesn't matter that Peter MacKay's use of the Challenger is far less than the yearly average of any Liberal defence minister in the past 10 years. Or that the Conservative government has apparently reduced ministerial travel on Challenger aircraft by 80 per cent since the last years of the previous Liberal government. Or, as CBC reported last week, the jets are in the hangar 70 per cent of the time. Because it is better to hitch-hike than be on a government jet when plane politics is at play. MacKay might be better advised to thumb his way to Kabul in this environment.

The real question we should be asking ourselves, and it is a legitimate one, is as a leading G8 nation do we need these jets or not? Thereafter, do they serve a useful purpose? Do we accept that they are there to be used in a responsible manner?

A government minister defending jet use is a losing proposition, that is why it is such a popular ploy of opposition and the media. It will ever be thus until politicians travel by Greyhound or steamship to their intended destination. In the case of Minister MacKay, and even General Natynczyk before him, it is unfortunate to see these two men raked through the mud for using the tools they have to support our military and their families.

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