Canada's top soldier now says he will write a cheque to defray the cost of taking a VIP government jet to a Caribbean vacation if the Prime Minister's Office requests it.
This was a change of script for Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk, who used an infrequent scrum on Parliament Hill Monday to defend himself in a controversy over whether he's using Ottawa's executive jets too freely.
He'd previously said he didn't see any reason to reimburse Canadians for 21 flights he'd taken to pro sports events, fundraisers and – in one case – a family holiday in St. Martin.
The general offered up the repayment option Monday morning following a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had invited the senior officer to talk about the controversy.
"As the Prime Minister indicated, his office [is looking]at that trip … if the interpretation of the Treasury Board guidelines on this regard is incorrect, then I will reimburse as required," Gen. Natynczyk said. "If I have to pay for the ticket, then I will do that."
The general found himself out of step with critics last week over nearly $1.5-million in flights he'd taken on Challenger jets to attend Canadian Forces Appreciation Nights at NHL and CFL games, as well as military fundraisers and once to join a 2010 family vacation in the Caribbean.
Mr. Harper intervened in the matter Monday, rising to assure the House of Commons that his top soldier is aware of the rules governing use of the Challenger jets and will respect them.
"I have spoken to the Chief of the Defence Staff," Mr. Harper said. "He understands what those expectations are and is certainly prepared to live according to those rules. The Chief of the Defence Staff does fly very frequently on government business, but obviously where there are alternatives we will look into that usage."
Asked Monday if he would do anything differently, Gen. Natynczyk said he should have paid for the Caribbean flight himself and then sought reimbursement from the government.
The general said he took the executive jet on the government dime because he was trying to catch up with his family after the deaths of four soldiers had required him to delay vacation plans. He's also indicated he had Defence Minister Peter MacKay's blessing to take the Caribbean flight.
This January, 2010 jet flight to St. Martin cost taxpayers more than $92,000 if fixed expenses are included – such as a portion of the price tag of the plane and crew salaries – or $24,205 if only variable costs such as fuel, spare parts and maintenance are counted.
Gen. Natynczyk said all the other trips were made as part of his duties as Chief of the Defence Staff, adding he flies commercial where possible. He commands more than 103,000 soldiers.
"All the travel I do is commensurate with my responsibility as the Chief of the Defence Staff," he said. "Whenever I travel, my office travels with me."
The controversy comes at an awkward time for Gen. Natynczyk, who is supposed to be leading by example in chopping spending at the Forces – to help Ottawa tame the deficit by 2015.
The Department of National Defence is beset with infighting over how to cut. Asked if he thought the story came to light because foes at Defence are targeting him, the general replied that he is hard to faze. "I've been shot at in Sarajevo. I've been shot at in Baghdad," he said. "I've got some pretty tough skin."
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said Mr. MacKay should ultimately bear responsibility for the questionable usage of the jets. "I don't blame the general. The general is flying these planes because he has them at his disposal."
Liberal defence critic John McKay said he thinks it's reasonable to criticize Gen. Natynczyk's Caribbean trip but otherwise said he had no quarrel with the flights.