Canada

PM, MacKay in 2-year tussle over Airbus paint

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been locked in a lengthy tug-of-war with his defence minister over the future of the military's VIP Airbus, newly disclosed documents show.

Defence minister, military resist change to white, red from grey

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been locked in a lengthy tug of war with his defence minister over the future of the military's VIP Airbus, newly disclosed documents show.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter McKay disagree over the colour of the military's VIP Airbus. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Peter MacKay has repeatedly rejected requests from the prime minister's staff to have the Airbus painted a civilian white and red instead of its current military grey.

MacKay and senior officers argue that the white colour scheme would be too visible whenever the passenger jet is sent on troop and cargo missions to risky locales, as happens now when the aircraft is not needed by the prime minister or the Governor General.

Senior government officials say no final decision has been made.

But internal emails indicate the Privy Council Office — Harper's own department — ordered the military last September to arrange for the new paint job at the next scheduled maintenance.

Documents outlining the two-year tussle over the VIP plane were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

PMO repeatedly rebuffed

Since early 2009, the Prime Minister's Office has been raising the possibility of a civilian paint scheme with the minister of defence or directly with the military — only to be rebuffed repeatedly.

"As a result of the multi-role nature of this aircraft, which includes the transporting of Canadian Forces personnel and equipment into areas of operations, it has been painted in a colour scheme appropriate for those tasks," MacKay wrote in June 2009, dismissing the suggestion.

The repainting proposal originated early in 2009 with someone in close contact with the Prime Minister's Office and whose identity is withheld in the released documents.

In August 2009, MacKay repeated his initial opposition.

"I am confident that the current policies that govern Department of National Defence decisions regarding colour scheme and markings of all Canadian Forces aircraft ensure consideration of the many and varied missions and are made in the best interests of all those missions," he said in a terse email.

"These aircraft reflect our nation's commitment to ensuring that we provide our Canadian Forces personnel with the greatest possible support and advantage when we ask them to do the most demanding of operational missions."

No decision taken: Privy Council

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office says the proposed paint job is still under discussion.

"No decision has been taken on this," said Raymond Rivet.

But a military email from last September suggests otherwise.

"PCO has received direction to proceed with the painting of Airbus 001 in its white configuration," a senior military officer reported to air force brass on Sept. 13.

The decision "to have an Airbus permanently configured for VIP use in a colour other than the standard grey would have an impact both financially and on operations as essentially it would leave you with one less air resource," another officer wrote about the plan.

Apparent end run around minister

The Privy Council Office appeared to have made an end run around MacKay early last year, asking the military directly about a new paint job for the twin-engine aircraft, also known as a Polaris CC150.

Gen. Walter Natynczyk, chief of defence staff, sent a briefing note to MacKay in February last year to alert him to the fresh request, more than six months after the minister had already twice rejected the idea.

 "A member of the PCO staff has again asked if CC150001 can be designated a VIP-only AC (aircraft) and be repainted in the GoC (Government of Canada) colours by June," says another internal document.

The staff were asking for a new paint job to be completed by June 10 last year, apparently to spruce up the aircraft in time for the G8 and G20 summits later that month in Huntsville, Ont., and Toronto.

MacKay's office again rejected the request, on April 15 last year, but the prime minister's staff persisted.

Issue won't die

Air force officers chafed at the relentless stream of requests coming from the Privy Council Office, the email trail shows.

"Like a zombie in a B movie, this issue won't stay down," one officer wrote last April.

A series of drawings was created showing the proposed paint job, and a senior bureaucrat at Treasury Board was asked to comment on whether the new markings conformed to the federal "identity" program.

In the end the prime minister's staff had their way, though they compromised by requiring the new paint job only at the next scheduled maintenance of the VIP aircraft in 2012, the emails indicate. The delay was to help keep costs down.

A one-page briefing note on the issue, prepared for Harper last April, was requested under the Access to Information Act but was entirely censored by the Privy Council Office for security reasons and because it contained advice.

The VIP Airbus has long been a political hot potato.

The air force owns five Airbus 310 transports, one of which is configured on the inside for VIPs. The front section features a self-contained apartment with shower, bed and parlour, though the facilities are utilitarian and not at all luxurious. More than half the interior has regular passenger seating.

The aircraft was outfitted under the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and dubbed a flying Taj Mahal by then-Liberal leader Jean Chrétien, who won the 1993 election. Chrétien avoided flying in the aircraft during his decade as prime minister.