CFN – Watching the NDP’s feigned outrage at the Conservative’s use (misuse) of government aircraft generates flashbacks to when the Conservatives were in opposition.
At that time as head of the Conservative research group looking into Liberal misdeeds, we would often check the Challenger jet flight logs. Most of the time it was pretty boring stuff, but from time to time a few gems would show up such as holiday trips for either Prime Ministers Chretien or Martin. We even found one ministerial trip to Salt Lake City during the winter Olympics- naturally to watch a hockey game. But for the most part it was pretty routine stuff.
At that time cautionary notes that one day we might be in power and have to live with the results of our attacks on the Liberals went unheeded. It was simply too much fun to unleash our attack dogs in Question Period.
Upon assuming office in February 2006 realty set in. Other than very general guidelines on when government jets could be used, things were pretty well left open to interpretation.
At that time newly minted Prime Minister Harper recognized the pitfalls the use of government aircraft could create. He was insistent that they only be used for government business. The wrinkle in all of this though was the insistence of the RCMP that for security reasons the Prime Minister must use government aircraft at all times- even for private business, vacations etc.
This presented us with the problem of how does one account for trips that are a mixture of events IE government business, political events or personal time. Back in 2006, we couldn’t find any guidelines as to how to calculate or pay back the government for mixed use trips. In the end the decision was to look at what would a comparable commercial flight cost for the same route and destination. If the Prime Minister was not restricted to the use of the government jet, those would be the real costs he and staff would have to pay. It was far from perfect but established the principle that on any flight any nongovernment business had to be accounted for and that portion paid back to the Government of Canada.
When a trip was being planned, great care was taken in ensuring that we knew what percentage of that trip was government business, political or personal. We would spend many hours counting the mileage of flights and figuring out which parts had to be reimbursed. Costs were calculated as above and a cheque was required as soon as possible. I might add that Harper was insistent that it be paid back quickly and would often ask in the senior staff meetings if we had received the cheque from the party.
Who could use a jet and under what conditions was very tightly controlled. Ministers wanting the convenience of government aircraft use were told in no uncertain terms to take a commercial flight.
When looking at the present issue, if nongovernmental staff, friends etc. are on the flight, then at the very least they should be paying their own way, unless the Conservative Party wants to pick up their tab and aircraft should not be used for purely political events. It is hard to believe that a Prime Minister flying to any part of Canada cannot find government events or meetings to coincide with a trip.
There is no easy solution to this problem and simplistic solutions that all costs are paid for at full value don’t work either. It will be fun to watch how the NDP puts themselves in the same political straightjacket that the Conservatives did when they were in opposition. Of course the one advantage the NDP has it that they don’t have to worry about being in government any time soon.
Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails. To sponsor this column please email firstname.lastname@example.org!