Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only trousers burning

Peter MacKay's dog is loyal. Fortunately for the Minister of National Defense, so is his boss, for now at least.

Peter MacKay’s dog is loyal. Fortunately for the Minister of National Defense, so is his boss, for now at least. Otherwise the member for Central Nova might find himself hoisted out of his cabinet seat and sent on a quick, low-cost trip to the back benches, as befits a minister caught misleading the House.

MacKay’s original sin was not a major one. On July 9, 2010, he was at a remote fishing camp in Newfoundland, enjoying a bit of vacation time. It’s a big job, being Canada’s defence minister, and who could begrudge him the opportunity to catch a few fish and hoist a few beers on his days off? But duty called, in the form of a funding announcement in Ontario and the Challenger jet which is the minister’s preferred mode of transportation doesn’t land in remote fishing camps.

To reach Gander, the nearest place the Challenger can land, would have taken three hours of precious fishing time so MacKay commissioned a Canadian Forces Search and Rescue helicopter to taxi him to the airport. It must have been quite an exciting ride since he had to be hoisted out of the camp in a sling, there being no suitable landing site available.

The whole matter might have passed unremarked, but MacKay was already taking flack from opposition members over his alleged overuse of the Challenger. He’s spent $2.9 million on flights in the government jets in the past four years. This figure does not include trips to Afghanistan, for which he uses military aircraft.

It’s not the kind of issue that brings down a government or even a minister, but for a ruling party trying to pass itself off as penny-pinching, it’s an embarrassment they could do without. The real problem began when opposition members called MacKay on his high-flying ways. On the Challenger bill, his office released a statement declaring that “in approximately 50 per cent of the total Challenger flights Minister MacKay has taken, he has taken these flights to attend the repatriation of fallen military personnel.”

Oops, or as MacKay’s colleague Bev Oda might say, NOT!

The record shows that out of 35 Challenger flights, only nine offered the minister opportunities for photo-ops with flag-draped coffins. But the fallen-troops claim came from an underling, and at any rate is almost true except for the arithmetic. It’s not until we come to MacKay’s response to questions around the helicopter flight that the stench of burning ministerial trousers becomes overpowering.

MacKay told the House that the only reason he took the helicopter instead of a much cheaper boat was that the forces wanted to give him a long-delayed SAR demonstration. As it turns out, there’s not a word of truth in that claim. For one thing, he’d had that demonstration the previous year. Military communications reveal that the request for the flight came from MacKay’s office, and that reluctant officials first considered sending a transport helicopter from CFB Gagetown, or from Goose Bay, finally settling on the SAR chopper because it was closer.

Confronted with these facts, and with emails showing that the military strongly advised against using an SAR helicopter for a shuttle bus “under the guise” of a training mission, the Conservatives changed tack. Defending his defence minister, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters that the flight was “appropriate” because “the minister was called back from vacation and used governmental aircraft only for government business.”

Does this mean that in the future SAR helicopters will be at the disposal of cabinet ministers who are suddenly called away to make emergency funding announcements? Because if so, your chances of survival in a nautical emergency off Canada’s coast just got a lot slimmer. It’s sheer good luck that the chopper in question wasn’t needed for real search and rescue work while MacKay was using it for a taxicab.

Now it seems that in addition to covering MacKay’s $16,000 heli-cab ride so he could spend a couple more hours with his fishing buddies, the taxpayers are footing the bill to re-cover the minister’s fire-ravaged posterior. According to the Globe and Mail, Department of National Defence officials “have been aggressively searching for ammunition against the opposition” and have so far turned up the fact that Bob Rae once travelled in an OPP helicopter back in 1992.

By Conservative standards, MacKay’s misuse of a military helicopter is a mini-scandal. It didn’t cost $50 million, like the Muskoka boondoggle, it’s unlikely to result in a criminal conviction like the in-and-out election fraud and it doesn’t involve proroguing Parliament to escape allegations of complicity in war crimes. On the other hand it does give off the strong scent of mendacity on the part of a cabinet minister. There used to be a remedy for that. They used to resign.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.