I don’t care a whole lot that Thomas Lukaszuk took his daughter with him on three Alberta Air Transportation Services flights while he was a cabinet minister. That would be to focus on a problem’s detail while ignoring the problem itself.
The Alberta cabinet has been using the province’s four aircraft as a limousine service for years, only patching up the rules when ethical problems crop up.
Remember in 2004, then-premier Ralph Klein stonewalling questions of his use of government aircraft with: “You don’t believe me? You don’t believe me? You don’t believe me?” This wasn’t the first instance of questionable use of free flights by a long shot.
The problem is that the Alberta government, registered as a Canadian airline, has four aircraft in the first place. That’s a situation unique in all of Canada.
Public interest groups have scanned thousands of pages of flight manifests since 2007 (when they were first made public), to see whose spouse or family member got a free ride on a plane on which date. They cross-reference that information with cabinet itineraries to see whether individual trips were for government work, or for private or party benefit.
That’s a heck of a lot of tedious work, and I’m glad somebody has the patience to do it and report back.
What bothers me is that the government has its own airline at all.
Technically, the government isn’t in competition with private business — until the tedious studies of the flight manifests are revealed, and one cabinet minister or another finds it prudent to pay back the estimated commercial cost of a flight that might have taken place outside the rules.
What bothers me is the line that’s been overlooked in auditor Merwin Saher’s report in August that says that if all these flights had been booked commercially, taxpayers would have saved $3.9 million.
Just before the Labour Day weekend, an anonymous tipster sent a report to CBC News that Progressive Conservative party leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk took his daughter with him on seven flights.
Lukaszuk has since narrowed that down to three, saying that as a single parent, he needed his daughter with him on “non-school” days.
When Saher’s report was made public, Lukaszuk repaid the estimated cost of the trips — $1,400 — on his own initiative “so that no one could question my integrity.”
OK, it’s a bit late but I can accept that.
But consider how Lukaszuk dropped a party bombshell in an interview later.
“But if my cutting a cheque is setting an example, boy, there will be a lot of very large cheques (cut by other ministers),” he told the Edmonton Journal.
Think about the subtext there. These flights are approved under the rules of the Alberta Treasury Board. It’s chairman is Finance Minister Doug Horner.
Horner is reported to have brought his wife with him on 23 flights since the 2007 reporting rule was in place. And his is only one example here.
I have a small problem with spouses accompanying elected officials on flights at my expense.
I quite understand that the hours are long for cabinet ministers, that quiet time with a spouse may be at a premium, much less to have a meal together.
It’s no treat being a political spouse, either.
All this is understood.
So filling an empty seat on a flight to a meeting in Grande Prairie and back, what’s the harm?
None, really, if the flight was booked charter and non-government passengers were not charged to the taxpayer.
Does anyone doubt that there is a charter airline in Alberta willing to be on call to the government, at a significant discount? That, given a bit of notice, they could have the right type of aircraft at any given airport on any given day, at a competitive price for a preferred customer?
That’s pretty well standard practice in other Canadian provinces. And it would save Alberta taxpayers millions.
The unseemly manner in which the whole Tory party dog-piled on former premier Alison Redford for red-lining a standard government practice looks pretty hypocritical right now.
Lukaszuk says he wants all flights by cabinet ministers since 2007 re-examined. Boy, won’t there be a lot of big repayment cheques made then, he said.
What does that tell you? It tells me that it’s time to liquidate Air Alberta. It tells me that open bidding for charter services is a good idea, since all Tories believe private industry is better than public industry, 100 per cent of the time, anyway.
About $3.9 million better, according to Saher’s report.
The Air Transportation Service is a while elephant, fiscally and ethically. Get rid of it.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email email@example.com.