Stephen Harper has come to the defence of beleaguered Nova Scotia lieutenant Peter MacKay.
The Defence Minister found himself under attack in the House of Commons on Thursday for racking up nearly $3-million in flights on Challenger jets since he took over the portfolio.
Flight records reviewed by The Globe and Mail show Mr. MacKay outranks all cabinet colleagues aside from Mr. Harper when it comes to ordering federal government executive jets.
It's the latest piece of bad news for the party's Atlantic Canadian star, who has been criticized in recent days for enlisting a search-and-rescue helicopter to ferry him from a Newfoundland fishing camp vacation in 2010. The camp is partly owned by a family friend whom the Conservatives appointed as chair of a federal Crown corporation.
Mr. Harper told the Commons that all Mr. MacKay's Challenger flights were legitimate. "When he has used them, they've been for important government business," the Prime Minister said.
He said half of Mr. MacKay's flights were to attend repatriation ceremonies at which the remains of fallen soldiers were returned to Canada.
"Half of those flights are for repatriation ceremonies so that he can meet the families of those who have lost their loved ones in the service of this country. He goes there to show that we understand their sacrifice, we share their pain and we care about them," the Prime Minister said.
"That is why the Minister of Defence is so highly regarded."
Records show, however, that Mr. MacKay's office requested the Challenger jets for 35 flights. These are trips on which Mr. MacKay is listed as the main passenger – "VIP" or "user requesting." Only nine were to attend repatriation ceremonies.
Mr. Harper's defence compares apples and oranges. It measures a much bigger pool of flights – 110 – that includes those on which the Nova Scotia minister was a passenger on jets ordered by others, such as the military.
If these ride-along trips counted as flights ordered up by Mr. MacKay, his total mileage and costs for the last four years would be far higher than 247 hours and $2.9-million.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris accused Mr. Harper of taking cover behind soldiers in defending Mr. MacKay.
"I think there's a little bit of hiding behind that by the Prime Minister. That's not necessary and not appropriate," Mr. Harris said.
He noted that repatriation ceremonies are not usually organized on the spur of the moment.
"Is this a necessary government expenditure when we're on the cusp of another recession? I think we're talking about a government here that is out of touch with what ordinary Canadians think."
Mr. Harper said his government's use of the executive jets is down 70 per cent from the last years of the former Liberal government.
Mr. MacKay, meanwhile, faced more questions about his July, 2010, trip to a fishing camp owned in part by Rob Crosbie, the chair of a Crown corporation.
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said Mr. MacKay could be in contravention of the conflict of interest code over the stay at the camp.
The Liberals are considering launching a formal complaint to the watchdog.
Mr. MacKay had refused to reveal who owned the camp, but that information leaked out.
On Thursday afternoon, the Defence Minister's office said Mr. MacKay sent Ms. Dawson a copy of a canceled cheque from 2010 to show that he paid for his stay.
"He received no gift or advantage from anyone, and there was thus no contravention of any rule," spokesman Joshua Zanin said.