Federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay cost Canadian taxpayers $16,000 for a 25-minute aerial joyride rather than take a two-hour trip to an airport.
It’s a measure of how little respect exists in Ottawa for our hard-earned money and the overweening sense of entitlement from some people in the highest echelons of government.
Now MacKay is threatening to sue some opposition members of Parliament who have criticized him for this jaunt.
How much more money lawyering up and civil service staff time will that cost us?
The issue began last summer when MacKay was on vacation at a Newfoundland fishing resort.
A previously scheduled event in southwestern Ontario — which had been on his calendar for months — forced MacKay to cut short his piscatorial pursuits before he would have liked.
The fishing lodge was a two-hour trip from the Gander Airport.
Apparently that was too much of a hardship for the minister to endure.
Days before his scheduled departure, MacKay called Ottawa to see if a military helicopter could pick him up to ferry him to Gander, where he could fly out to his Ontario appointment.
A flurry of communications ensued, chiefly characterized by official resistance to a bad idea.
Wise heads in Ottawa know the public sensitivity to squandering public money and misuse of government aircraft.
It was only three months ago that Canada’s chief of defence staff defused a mini-scandal over using military aircraft for personal use; he promised to pay back the government for commandeering a military jet to join his family on vacation in the Caribbean.
In MacKay’s case, one officer wondered in an email who would be around to answer reporters’ questions when the story inevitably came out.
A senior Defence staffer mused that the operation would have to be presented in “the guise of”’ a search-and-rescue training mission.
That, of course, is precisely what happened.
It’s staggering to witness how tone deaf MacKay could be.
He grew up in a political family. MacKay is the son of Elmer MacKay, who was a Conservative MP for more than 20 years and held multiple cabinet posts.
Peter, 46, has been a member of Parliament for 14 years, was the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and has held multiple cabinet posts under Stephen Harper.
MacKay has taken on many duties, and there’s no denying that the life of a federal cabinet minister can be a multi-tasking grind.
The helicopter crews in Gander, by contrast, have only one overweening, massive and dangerous job: providing search and rescue capability in the vast, frigid North Atlantic Ocean off our east coast.
It’s dangerous, exacting work. Our airmen train diligently for these missions.
After the fact, MacKay said that he had long wanted to see a live demonstration of the Search and Rescue team in action, and this was a perfect opportunity.
Right, except for the fact that there was zero searching involved and little time to ensure that crews would still be available for their prime duty while catering to the minister’s whim.
The armed forces knew the precise location of the fishing lodge where MacKay was staying, down the most minuscule map co-ordinates.
They had to first fly a reconnaissance mission over the site to determine if there was a safe place to land.
So MacKay got what was, no doubt, a thrill of a lifetime, being hauled up to the hovering chopper on a cable winch.
The prime minister’s office put out a statement saying the military helicopter was used because MacKay had been “called away to work.”
The intent of that language was to imply that the minister had urgent and unplanned defence matters to oversee, rather than an event in Ontario that had been planned months before, and amounted to little more than a ministerial photo opportunity.
MacKay could have saved himself a lot of political grief and Canadian taxpayers thousands of dollars by simply getting out the same way he came in — a two-hour boat and car ride to the Gander airport.
If that was too exacting, he could have had a fishing friend or staffer take the wheel.
Late this week, the Harper government’s spin machine went into overdrive, trotting out crew members from MacKay’s flight to tell reporters that, yes indeed, this was a valuable training mission.
In truth, they could have gotten the same training benefit by hauling any old sack of hammers from any seashore up to the chopper.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.