Politics

Stephen Harper's pre-election N.S. event cost public thousands: documents

A CBC News investigation into campaign-style events by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in Nova Scotia in May found up to $40,000 billed to taxpayers. The travel, well before the election campaign officially began, raises questions about the line between partisan politics and government business.

Internal documents suggest Conservative leader's campaign-style events were costly to taxpayers

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper greets supporters during a campaign-style visit to the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester on May 14 to support incumbent Conservative MP Scott Armstrong. A CBC News investigation indicates taxpayers were billed about $40,000 for the pre-election event in Truro. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper is campaigning in central Nova Scotia today, his second visit to the region in two months — but this time his party will pay for his team's travel expenses.

The prime minister's campaign-style visit to Nova Scotia two months ago cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in travel and technical support — raising questions about the dividing line between partisan pitches and legitimate government business in the pre-election period.

Harper visited Truro, N.S., on May 14-15 for an evening rally and a staged event the next day re-announcing an infrastructure fund that had been unveiled in the 2015 budget months earlier.

Conservative MP Scott Armstrong, who is in a tough fight for his seat in the area, was prominently featured at both events, supported by Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who will not be running in his own riding nearby, leaving a major gap for the party in the region.

Harper and his Ottawa staff flew to Nova Scotia on a military Challenger jet, which also stopped for events in Windsor, Ont., and Calgary, for a total bill of $46,962, a National Defence spokesman said. The RCMP does not allow the prime minister to travel on commercial flights for security reasons, though private aircraft provided by the Conservative Party are allowed.

Webcasting cost $10K

At least two staff from the Prime Minister's Office, Drew Campbell and Michelle Keller-Hobson, flew to Nova Scotia separately, racking up $2,100 in travel expenses. Two others, photographer Jason Ransom and deputy press secretary Anna Tomala, travelled with Harper for the Windsor, Truro and Calgary events, together billing taxpayers for $2,200 in travel claims.

An RCAF Challenger like the one shown above ferried Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to a campaign-style event in N.S. in May. The military says all legs of the flight, which included Windsor, Ont., and Calgary, cost $47,000. (Royal Canadian Air Force)

Taxpayers were billed another $9,560 by a Halifax media firm for webcasting, equipment and staff to set up events in Truro.

And expense claims filed with the Privy Council Office show another 10 staff flew to Nova Scotia, two of them in late April, to help set up the visit. The claims indicate they collectively racked up some $15,000 in airfare, hotels, taxis, meals, etc., to support the prime minister's travel.

Party paid for Mrs. Harper's travel and expenses- Conservative spokesman Stephen Lecce

Altogether, the bill adds up to about $40,000 for the visit, depending on how the Challenger flight segments are treated, and without including salaries and benefits.

Spokesmen for the prime minister note that Harper also met with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil during the visit, and provided more details about applying for the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Fund, though there was nothing specific to Truro in the announcement.

Some costs not available

CBC News compiled the costs of the visit through inquiries to National Defence, through publicly posted expense claims and through other expense claims released under the Access to Information Act. Some names of travellers were blacked out, and National Defence declined to provide passenger manifests for the Challenger flights.

Former Tory MP Bill Casey, now a Liberal candidate, is challenging incumbent Scott Armstrong in the Oct. 19 election.

Other costs, such as travel for Armstrong and MacKay, were not available. A Privy Council spokesman said additional costs related to the Truro trip were still to be posted on the department's website.

Harper's wife Laureen returned to Nova Scotia soon after the prime minister's visit to help raise funds for Scott Armstrong, who's being challenged in the riding by Bill Casey, once a popular Tory MP who became an Independent to protest federal resource policy as it applied to Nova Scotia. Casey is now carrying the Liberal banner in the current campaign and is widely seen as a threat to Armstrong.

Indeed, the riding is seen as enough of a Conservative concern that Harper is returning to Cumberland-Colchester Sunday to try to shore up support for Armstrong, a loyal Harper partisan.

Party covered Laureen Harper's costs

Stephen Lecce, a spokesman at Conservative campaign headquarters in Ottawa, said the party "paid for Mrs. Harper's travel and expenses related to the fundraisers in [the riding of] Cumberland-Colchester."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen visit Gov. Gen. David Johnston, at Rideau Hall on Aug. 2, to ask him to dissolve Parliament and trigger an election campaign. Harper said he was calling the election early to save taxpayers money. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press )

Laureen Harper's partisan events appear in a 24/7 video from the Prime Minister's Office, which is produced weekly at taxpayers' expense. It was not immediately clear how that footage was gathered. Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet said only that "there was no additional cost to capture this footage."

On Aug. 2, when he announced the official start of the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history, Harper said he was trying to save taxpayers' money.

"Everybody knows the election date and the campaigns of the other parties, as near as I can tell, have already begun," he said.

"I feel very strongly ... that those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law. That the money come from the parties themselves, not from government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources."

After the Truro event in May, Casey noted that Harper's infrastructure announcement had nothing to do with Truro, where hopes had been raised for local improvements.

"I don't ever remember a time in history when this riding had a prime minister, a minister of justice and a senator all together to make an announcement and it didn't affect the riding," he said.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

Corrections

  • This story has been updated to correct the travel costs stated for two members of the Prime Minister's Office. Those costs were $2,100 not $4,300.
    Aug 17, 2015 11:03 AM ET

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