The Commons: A fishing story

The Scene. Peter MacKay, as is his habit, was up before the questioner was even through. This is, presumably, what the Defence Minister does to demonstrate confidence. Or impatience. Or a general disregard for proper manners.

The poser of the question in this case was Scott Simms, the diminutive Liberal from Bonavist-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor. “Mr. Speaker, we now know, with great regret, that the Minister of National Defence ordered his search and rescue helicopter to pick him up from his vacation on the Gander River,” he lamented. “The response is ‘It was a demonstration of their capabilities.'”

There was much groaning and grumbling from the government side.

“He feels that he is entitled to use vital life-saving equipment for his own personal limousine, and we would like for him to answer to it,” Mr. Simms continued. “The Prime Minister has suggested that the chief of defence staff pay back the money for his personal flights. Will the Minister of Defence do that same, pay back the $16,000 and apologize?”

As noted, Mr. MacKay was already up, apparently eager to state his case.

“Mr. Speaker, with respect to the question from the honourable member, I was in fact in Gander in July of 2010 on a personal visit with friends that I paid for,” he said, hands in pockets at first, then folded in front of him. “Three days into the visit I participated in a search and rescue demonstration with 103 squadron of 9 Wing Gander.”

At this, the Liberal corner burst into laughter.

“I shortened my stay by a day to take part in that demonstration,” the Defence Minister finished, “and later flew on to do government business in Ontario.”

This was perhaps not quite the contrition that Mr. Simms had been looking for, but it was now Jack Harris’ turn to pronounce shame.

“Mr. Speaker, we are all shocked to learn,” he declared, “that the Minister of National Defence sees his country’s military equipment as his own personal chauffeur service.”

The Conservative side was thoroughly displeased with this line of questioning. “Bush league!” cried one voice from the government benches. “You’re a bottom feeder, Jack!” whined another.

“The government is paying consultants to tell it how to save money, but the Minister of Defence used a helicopter that should be on standby for search and rescue to pick him up for a personal fishing trip,” Mr. Harris continued. “This helicopter was ordered on the day, from his office in Ottawa. How can the minister possibly justify such an inappropriate use of public funds?”

Undaunted by the giggles his first response had drawn, the Defence Minister repeated himself. “Mr. Speaker, I think I just explained that I shortened a personal visit to take part in a search and rescue demonstration in Gander. Had any emergency requirement arisen that would have required search and rescue assets, they would have of course been immediately diverted,” he assured the House.

He might’ve sat back done here, but then it’s rarely ever enough for members of this government to claim innocence. For every defensive reaction, there must be an equal and opposite gesture of offensiveness.

“As the member would know, having participated in the parliamentary program with the Canadian Forces, members of Parliament, in fact 20 including himself, took part in search and rescue activities in the past,” Mr. MacKay finished.

“Ohh!” the government benches sang, this bit having been meant to supposed to have demonstrated some sort of contradiction in the NDP critic’s complaints.

Here, alas, the minister’s scriptwriters had outdone themselves. Which is to say they had setup Mr. Harris for an achingly obvious rejoinder.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harris shot back, “being picked up at a cost of $16,000 from a fishing camp is not the way to learn how search and rescue helicopters operate.”

The NDP side leapt up to applaud their man’s relative wit, but Mr. Harris, he of little nonsense, didn’t pause. “Average Canadians are being told to tighten their belts, but when it comes to the minister and his department’s use of military aircraft apparently money is no object,” he said. “How can we count on this minister to provide leadership on this issue when he himself treats a search and rescue helicopter as private transportation?”

Having been laughed at on his first attempt and then slapped down after his second, the Defence Minister was now in a dire strait. His only option now: stand and pledge support for the troops.

“Mr. Speaker, I am very proud of the work of the Canadian Forces, particularly those who take part in search and rescue,” he proclaimed.

Indeed, he now dashed off some impressive-sounding numbers about the work of the coast guard.

“I think,” he finished, “that as Minister of National Defence I should familiarize myself at every opportunity with the important work of those who perform these daily heroics.”

While various Conservatives stood to applaud this, the NDP side howled with derisive guffaws.

The Stats. The economy, seven questions. Government spending, six questions. The Defence Minister, four questions. Trade, three questions. The G8 Legacy Fund, F-35s, Canada Revenue Agency, foreign affairs, the environment and the Keystone pipeline, two questions each. Immigration, aboriginal affairs, political fundraising, employment, veterans, equality and affordable housing, one question each.

Peter MacKay, six answers. Stephen Harper and Ted Menzies, five answers each. Tony Clement, three answers. Deepak Obhrai, Julian Fantino, Gail Shea, Peter Kent, Joe Oliver, Ed Fast, Diane Finley and Rona Ambrose, two answers each. Rick Dykstra, John Duncan, Tim Uppal and Steven Blaney, one answer each.

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