Government-owned plane controversy continues

Premier David Alward isn't sure yet how he'll keep track of spending on government flights once the government-owned plane is sold, but says whatever system is put in place will be transparent.

Alward plans to sell, but Opposition wants to track charter and commercial flights

The Alward government has been criticized for its use of the government-owned airplane. David Alward, in this image, is leaving the plane in Charlo on Sept. 20, 2011.

Premier David Alward isn't sure yet how he'll keep track of spending on government flights once the government-owned plane is sold, but says whatever system is put in place will be transparent.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs announced during last month’s budget speech that the province is looking at selling the small plane the premier and ministers currently use, in an effort to cut costs.

But Liberal leader Victor Boudreau argued in budget estimates Wednesday that will mean more charter and commercial flights.

"What's the reporting mechanism going to be so we're able to track those flights and see if there really is a savings or not?" he asked.

It's an important question, stressed Boudreau, given that a well-known Tory supporter runs a Fredericton air charter company that could bid for government business.

The premier couldn't say how the Opposition, or the public, will be able to track who flies where, or the associated costs.

"It's really too early to indicate what direction we'll be going," Alward said. "Part of the review being undertaken is to look at various options."

Flight logs for the government plane are currently available from the Department of Transportation. The plane can also be tracked on various websites.

Government use of plane questioned

The government plane became a political lightning rod last year after the opposition accused government members of using it inappropriately.

On Sept. 20, the premier used the plane to fly to Moncton, Charlo and Campbellton — all to announce the creation of Invest NB.

That meant a total of four flights on the $1,500 per hour government plane to take the politicians and executives to the different media events.

"New Brunswickers will judge if it's money well spent by our premier and his government to go around the province and use the aircraft to make these announcements," Liberal MLA Roger Melanson, the opposition’s economic development critic, said at the time.

Then, in December, the Opposition Liberals discovered the taxpayer-owned plane made three flights to northwest New Brunswick on the same weekend the Progressive Conservative Party was holding a $500-per-person fundraiser near Edmundston.

Transportation Minister Claude Williams said the premier did attend the PC function, but argued the plane’s use was justified.

"The premier flew from Fredericton to St. Leonard to meet with the local MLAs on some regional issues," Williams had said.

But Alward sees those same local MLAs four days a week at the legislature.

Williams later said the meetings were with community leaders and community groups.

The two Sunday flights were to shuttle Health Minister Madeleine Dubé and another MLA to Fredericton for a committee meeting, then back home – even though all cabinet ministers are issued government cars for travel to and from their ridings.

Alward’s Progressive Conservatives routinely criticized the former Shawn Graham government for its decision to purchase the plane and how it used the plane.

On Wednesday, Alward said use of the government plane has dropped 50 per cent since October 2006.

The finance minister is counting on the government being able to sell $10 million in Crown-owned assets, including the plane, in order to reduce the deficit.