PM defends MacKay’s chopper use

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — In Newfoundland and Labrador, where walking the floorboards over loved ones at sea is a sad custom, emails suggesting Defence Minister Peter MacKay used a military chopper under the “guise” of search and rescue training drew exasperated anger.

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — In Newfoundland and Labrador, where walking the floorboards over loved ones at sea is a sad custom, emails suggesting Defence Minister Peter MacKay used a military chopper under the “guise” of search and rescue training drew exasperated anger.

That sentiment was not tempered Friday as Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended MacKay, saying use of the chopper to get from a fishing lodge to the nearby airport in Gander, N.L., was for legitimate government business.

“I think the minister has been very clear and we’ve been very clear,” Harper told a news conference in Burlington, Ont. “(He) was called back from vacation and used government aircraft only for government business.

“And I think that is appropriate.”

The cost of the 25-minute flight on July 9, 2010, has been estimated at about $16,000.

Online commentators and open-line radio callers in Newfoundland couldn’t decide if they were more irate at MacKay’s use of the helicopter so he could make a meeting in London, Ont., or his steadfast claim that it was all part of a hoist exercise.

Emails obtained by the Toronto Star do not mention a search and rescue demonstration. In fact, a senior military officer warned of a possible public backlash if one of the three Cormorant helicopters serving the notoriously hostile Atlantic coast was used to pick up MacKay.

Internal emails indicate the pickup was orchestrated under the “guise” of a training exercise.

Some online comments defended the move, saying MacKay should have access to military resources. Ottawa’s plans to shut down a marine rescue sub-centre in St. John’s next June had already stirred outraged protest in the province. The closure is part of $56 million in cuts to the federal fisheries budget.

“Many families have people who work on the ocean in hazardous conditions,” St. John’s city councillor Danny Breen said Friday.

His brother Peter died when a chopper carrying offshore oil workers crashed into the North Atlantic off Newfoundland on March 12, 2009, killing 17 people. Families have waited in vain for Ottawa to act on calls for faster military search and rescue times, Breen said.

“And then to have (the military) used as a personal taxi service is embarrassing and certainly insulting to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale said it’s a question of trust.

“As politicians, we’re provided with resources by the people we serve to do the job for them,” she said Friday in an interview.

“And we’ve learned very hard lessons in this province about misuse of government resources. It’s not a lesson that anybody should forget whether you’re here or anywhere else.”

Four provincial politicians of all political stripes served jail time for misspending constituency allowances in a scandal uncovered in 2006.

Other observers let loose.

“Enough is enough,” said Paddy Daly, host of local radio station VOCM’s popular call-in show Backtalk.

“Raise your hands and say: ’Go to Blazes, MacKay,’ ” Daly urged listeners as he offered to support any calls for the minister’s resignation.

Members of Parliament continued to hammer away at MacKay in Ottawa on Friday.

NDP MP Rosane Dore Lefebvre said that either MacKay has misled the Commons or he’s insinuating that the military is lying.

New Democrats and Liberals both demanded an apology, while NDP MP Ryan Cleary, representing St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, called for MacKay’s resignation.

The government fended off the attacks by saying it has slashed the use of government aircraft by cabinet ministers.

MacKay wasn’t in the Commons for Friday’s question period.