The Commons: 'It is the cover-up that buries one'

The government has decided it will no longer try to explain Peter MacKay's helicopter ride

The Scene. James Moore, today’s substitute prime minister, had enough to say about the government’s maybe withdrawing from Kyoto that it was not until his third response to NDP leader Nycole Turmel that he needed to start whining about the actions of a Liberal government that last held office nearly six years ago. Conversely, in response to a question from Bob Rae about the travel habits of Peter MacKay, Moore had but three sentences to offer before he had to start ranting about how terrible the Liberals had been.

So it could be worse. To this rallying cry, the government holds steadfast.

The explanation for Mr. MacKay is altogether more straightforward and thus more complicated.

For the record, the three sentences Mr. Moore offered in Mr. MacKay’s defence were as follows: “Mr. Speaker, we have been clear. The Minister of National Defence returned from a private trip in order to go back to work. Government aircraft are used for government work.”

This much was offered in response to a very specific question from Mr. Rae. “The Minister of National Defence has stated in the House that there was a previously planned search and rescue mission that was the reason for his being picked up by a government helicopter. I would like to ask the government if it could answer this simple question,” Mr. Rae begged. “If it was a previously planned mission, why did Lieutenant Colonel Chris Bowles say on July 7, 2010 ‘this mission will be under the guise of fighter group as search and rescue training?’ If it was a previously planned mission, why would you need a guise?”

The government has apparently decided to not even try to explain this much. Perhaps because it makes a mess of the minister’s previous attempts to explain himself. So where two months ago the minister’s helicopter ride was all about demonstrating the capabilities of the Canadian Forces and Coast Guard and proudly supporting the troops, now it is not about any of that at all. Now it is about the Defence Minister getting back to work.

On Mr. Moore’s assertion of clarity, there at least seemed to be some agreement. “Mr. Speaker, in front of us very clearly is this. It is about the minister telling the truth to the House of Commons,” Mr. Rae posited. “The minister said ‘We have now confirmed that the military has said publicly that I took part in a previously planned search and rescue demonstration.'”

In his seat, Mr. MacKay nodded.

“A review of the email traffic within the Department of National Defence makes it very clear that those comments by the Minister of National Defence are simply not true,” Mr. Rae continued.

In his seat, Mr. MacKay shook his head.

Aside from upping his claim of transparency—now the government was not just “clear,” but “very clear”—Mr. Moore stood here to repeat today’s sentences, none of which seemed to assuage the NDP’s David Christopherson, who wears his indignation like he does his moustache—loudly and proudly and well-groomed.

“Mr. Speaker, the defence minister took one of only three search and rescue helicopters out of service and he covered up his real intentions. As we have known since Watergate, it is the cover-up that buries one,” he ventured. “Will the minister bring this to an end today by doing the honourable thing and apologizing?”

Mr. MacKay would at least stand. “Mr. Speaker, as I have said many times, I was called back to work from personal time,” he shrugged. “Any suggestion that there was a retasking or a diversion of search and rescue aircraft from their actual tasking is simply untrue.”

That second sentence might even be true, but neither it nor the first sentence seem to answer the central accusation. Indeed, that first sentence would seem to raise only more questions. Is it meant to explain why the minister had to be picked up by a helicopter? If so, is it the government’s position that ministers of the crown are entitled to be picked up by helicopters when they are called back to work from holiday? How many other ministers have been rescued from vacation? Is there a written policy in this regard? If Jim Flaherty’s car breaks down on the way to a funding announcement, can he have a chopper called in? If Jason Kenney gets lost on the way that night’s cultural celebration, can he call on the air force? Does John Baird get to drive a tank on weekends?

Mr. Christopherson was too indignant to consider the implications, too furious even to ask a question, opting here to fume so furiously that his voice cracked under the strain. “Mr. Speaker, the minister continues to mislead the House,” he cried. “We all know there was no planned exercise. If the minister has documentation to the contrary, he should table it this afternoon. In the absence of that documentation, he should stand in his place and do the honourable thing, the right thing, apologize to Canadians and their Parliament.”

The Defence Minister stood here to patronize. “Mr. Speaker, I thank my friend for his calm, reasonable question,” he sniffed. “I was called back from personal time, to go back to work, as I said many times. That is what happened.”

Lest that not hold up to scrutiny, the minister might want to spend the night devising ways to segue into something about the sponsorship scandal.

The Stats. The environment and ethics, six questions each. Attawapiskat, the economy and national security, three questions each. Syria, the RCMP, air safety, food safety, the disabled and crime, two questions each. Bullying, the Congo, salmon, F-35s, resources and seniors, one question each.

James Moore and Deepak Obhrai, five answers each. Michelle Rempel, John Duncan, Diane Finley, Vic Toews and Peter MacKay, three answers each. Denis Lebel, Gerry Ritz and Jim Flaherty, two answers each. Peter Van Loan, Candice Hoeppner, Rob Nicholson, Bev Oda, Keith Ashfield, Julian Fantino, Joe Olver and Alice Wong, one answer each.

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