ANALYSIS | Greg Weston: MacKay will wriggle off the hook

Either a dozen of Canada's military officers conspired to write phoney memos to embarrass the defence minister, or the minister lied. One way or the other, someone should surely be decorated with a pink slip.

Early one July morning last year, a Canadian Forces search-and-rescue helicopter hovered over a private fishing camp in Newfoundland, hoisted up Defence Minister Peter MacKay in a basket, and flew him to a waiting government jet barely 10 minutes away.

MacKay's brief ride in a helicopter designed to rescue an entire ship's crew at sea cost taxpayers more than  $30,000 for the trip and days of military planning, and caused a major political stink when it all became public two months ago.

In response, the defence minister told the Commons on Sept. 22 this year: "I was in fact in Gander in July of 2010 on a personal visit with friends that I paid for. Three days into the visit, I participated in a search-and-rescue demonstration.

"I shortened my stay by a day to take part in that demonstration, and later flew on to do government business in Ontario."

But government documents tell a dramatically different story: A military search-and-rescue helicopter was ordered to ferry MacKay the short hop from fishing lodge to waiting jet -- at enormous cost and effort by the military – to save the minister a two-hour trip by boat and car.

The stuff about cutting his vacation short to participate in a search-and-rescue demonstration was a fish story.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has defended his flight aboard a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter as use for government business. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
As one high-ranking military officer wrote in a memo days before the minister's helicopter flight: "This mission will be under the guise" of search-and-rescue training.

Either a dozen of Canada's high-ranking military officers conspired to write phoney memos to embarrass the minister, or MacKay lied.

One way or the other, someone should surely be decorated with a pink slip.

Few things corrode the effectiveness of our democratic system more than dishonesty among those elected, appointed or hired to serve the public.

As much as honest politics may seem oxymoronic to many Canadians, feeding the public a crock is not a victimless offence.

What is the impact on the morale of the dedicated men and women of Canada's armed forces when their defence minister claims his misuse of a military helicopter as a personal taxi was merely participating in a search-and-rescue demonstration?

What message are Canada's more than 250,000 federal public servants supposed to take away from MacKay's example as they go about their jobs spending taxpayers' money?

If politicians lie about the small stuff, why would ordinary Canadians believe anything the government says on matters of grave importance?

No matter. No one is likely to be on the firing line from Peter MacKay's expensive taxi ride and dubious explanations.

Truth is, in Stephen Harper's government of promised openness and accountability, lying is apparently not a firing offence.


Tony Clement gets caught in a nose-stretcher over scrapping the long-form census, claiming the move was recommended by Statistics Canada, which, in fact, did no such thing.

The head of StatsCan resigns to prove the point.

Clement is moved from industry minister to be the head of Treasury Board, the department responsible for setting and enforcing the rules of ethical conduct in the public service.

Bev Oda, the minister responsible for Canada's foreign aid programs, fibs about how and why her department cut off millions of dollars in funding to a particular agency.

She still has her limo.

Not surprisingly, the Pinocchio syndrome appears to have infected the Conservative party to its roots.

In Montreal recently, Conservatives admitted to running a telephone campaign soliciting support from constituents in a by-election to replace longtime Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, whom, they imply, is quitting.

The whole thing is a sham – Cotler isn't quitting and there is no byelection.

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan defends his party's deceit as a right of freedom of speech.

The fact that lying in high places has gone unpunished should really come as no big surprise.

The buck stops at the Prime Minister's Office, which, on too many occasions in the past, is also where the truth has stopped. Several of Stephen Harper's past spokespeople became legendary for their whoppers.

(Soon after the Conservatives came to power in 2006, several national political columnists with major media organizations refused to travel abroad anymore with the prime minister, concluding they could be just as easily lied to at their desks for a lot less money.)

Not allowing the truth to get in the way of good politics is certainly not unique to the Harper government.

Jean Chretien embroiled his government in a lasting furore when he falsely denied having lobbied the head of the Federal Business Development Bank to give a loan to a controversial innkeeper in his riding.

Brian Mulroney's penchant for Irish blarney allowed his political opponents to successfully popularize the unfortunate moniker, "Lyin' Brian."

So far, Harper has not fired anyone for lying.

One thing the Conservatives do particularly well is read the public mood.

And evidently what they are reading is an electorate so disenchanted and disconnected from national politics that dishonesty is considered just business as usual in the nation's capital.

As long as a government believes the public doesn't care about politicians who lie, don't expect those who do to be punished.

The prime minister was asked why there have been no consequences for MacKay.

The PM responded that the minister's use of the helicopter was "appropriate."

No mention of lying.

One morning on a fishing trip in Newfoundland, the big one that got away was the minister of national defence.


Greg Weston was an investigative reporter for CBC News and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television from 2010 to 2015.