Harper defends MacKay over VIP jet flights

OTTAWA — Peter MacKay opened his chequebook for inspection by the country’s ethics commissioner, while the prime minister defended him in a growing political brush fire over his use of government aircraft as defence minister.

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay leaves the House of Commons after speaking with the media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay leaves the House of Commons after speaking with the media on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

OTTAWA — Peter MacKay opened his chequebook for inspection by the country’s ethics commissioner, while the prime minister defended him in a growing political brush fire over his use of government aircraft as defence minister.

Mary Dawson told a House of Commons committee Thursday some rules may have been broken in the minister’s 2010 summer vacation, some of which was at a Newfoundland fishing lodge where he was picked up by a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter.

The resort belongs to the federally appointed chairman of Crown-owned Marine Atlantic.

There “could be some contraventions,” Dawson said in response to questions from the Liberals.

A copy of the personal cheque used to pay for his time at the lodge will be sent to the commissioner’s office, MacKay said following question period, which was highlighted by calls to clip the defence minister’s wings.

“I’ve taken that step to provide her that information. If she has any questions, she can contact me,” he said.

The Liberals have mused about filing an ethics complaint, but have not yet done so. The NDP are also hesitating.

Over $2.9 million worth of flights aboard the government’s Challenger jets have been logged by MacKay since 2008, according to access-to-information records compiled by CTV News.

New Democrats say the high-flying minister should be grounded.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, until now silent about the controversy, defended the embattled minister, saying MacKay has used the jet 70 per cent less than his Liberal predecessors.

He said use of the Challenger was justified because “half the time he does that for repatriation ceremonies” in Trenton, Ont., when deceased soldiers are returned from Afghanistan.

The intent, the prime minister said, was to meet the families of fallen soldiers.

“He goes there to show that we understand their sacrifice, we share their pain and we care about them and that’s why the minister of defence is so highly regarded,” Harper told the Commons.

But NDP defence critic Jack Harris scoffed at the explanation, saying MacKay used the jet to attend government announcements rather than flying commercial, as other cabinet ministers do.

“When will the prime minister tell his cabinet that ethics rules apply to them too? When will he crack down on this out-of-control, jet-setting Conservative lifestyle?”

Harris accused the prime minister of hiding behind soldiers, saying the defence was “inappropriate.”

Records show MacKay’s office requested use of the Challenger for 35 flights and of those, only nine were to attend repatriation ceremonies.

Later, Harris said the bigger issue is whether Canada needs six Challenger jets, which are notoriously expensive to fly in a time of severe deficit reduction.

“Maybe we have too many of these jets,” said Harris, who pointed out that the executive aircraft sometimes fly empty from various destinations.

“Should ministers fly on the Challenger jet at great public expense — or should they fly commercial as the prime minister of Great Britain does?”