Lay off General Natynczyk

Hypocrisy and cheap shotS from MPs on the defence commander's use of a Challenger jet show a bush-league attitude

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of all the cheap and cheesy stories coming out of Ottawa, none beats the drive-by shootings on the use, and alleged misuse, of government aircraft.

The latest victim is General Walter Natynczyk, chief of Canada's defence staff, who according to CTV ran up a tab of more than $1 million over the last three years flying around the country on a government Challenger.

Natynczyk flew to Calgary for a meeting and Stampede photo op with U.S. General David Petraeus, then the top U.S. officer for Afghanistan. Natynczyk also flew by Challenger to attend Canadian Forces appreciation nights at CFL football and NHL hockey games.

These events were all representational, part of his job. A Challenger also dropped him off in St. Martin, to catch up to his family for a Christmas holiday - after he'd attended a repatriation ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Trenton for four fallen Canadian soldiers and journalist Michelle Lang, all killed in Afghanistan. Which was also representational, to say nothing of being the right thing to do. The flight was approved by Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

In the predictable firestorm on Parliament Hill on Monday, Natynczyk called a scrum and offered to reimburse the government for the flight to the Caribbean if the Prime Minister's Office thought he should.

It's one thing to get out in front of a story in terms of damage control, but this is ridiculous. Don't write that cheque, General. Write a letter of resignation instead.

In the Commons Monday, there was the expected indignation by the opposition.

"Mr. Speaker," thundered New Democratic Party defence critic Jack Harris, "the cost of the chief of defence staff 's recent taxpayer-funded trips to events such as football games, hockey games and the Calgary Stampede has shocked Canadians. The government is now planning significant cuts to the Canadian Forces. Will the Conservative austerity plan apply only to soldiers, sailors and airmen and -women in the field, and not to the brass? Why did the minister of national defence approve over $1 million of flights to be taken by the CDS?"

There's no accounting for hypocrisy in politics. This was coming from a guy who as an MP is automatically entitled to 64 free return flights a year, including 25 anywhere in Canada. But of course, Jack, that's part of your job.

It's also part of the chief of defence staff 's job, getting out to see the 100,000 troops under his command, and showing the flag for the Forces at representational events.

The fact is that the CDS has always had a Challenger at his disposal, and as Natynczyck pointed out, his office travels with him. One of the reasons for Canada's rapid response to the Haitian earthquake in 2009 is that Natynczyk, in the air returning from Edmonton, was on the phone with MacKay, ordering the first relief flights into the air from Trenton.

Two other government officials, the prime minister and the governor-general, always fly on a Department of National Defence Challenger in Canada, because they are not permitted to fly commercial for security reasons. On overseas trips, they travel on one of four Airbus 310s that are also used for royal tours of Canada. (When the Airbus fleet was acquired by Brian Mulroney in 1993, Liberal leader Jean Chrétien scoffed at "the flying Taj Mahal." Mulroney left office before ever flying on it, and of course Chrétien used it for 10 years.)

In the House on Monday, MacKay pointed out that the use of Challengers is down 80 per cent under the present government. Which means that they are flying empty, so that the pilots can get in their necessary hours every month.

For example, in 2009 Finance Minister Jim Flaherty chaired a meeting with his provincial and territorial colleagues in Yukon. But instead of taking a Challenger back to Toronto, as he should have, he flew commercial from Yellowknife to Vancouver and then caught the red-eye home. Is this good use of a finance minister's time? Of course not.

The Challenger also happens to be a Canadian-made plane, built by Bombardier in Montreal. It's the forerunner of the Regional Jet, one of the most successful commercial jets in the world.

In 1993, Mulroney was flying into Andrews Air Force Base in Washington for a farewell weekend at Camp David with the first President Bush.

Standing on the tarmac to greet him was the commanding officer of the base. "Neat little plane," he said, as the Challenger taxied in.

"It's made in Canada," he was told.

"I know," he said, "that's why we're not allowed to buy it."

Enough already with these phoney stories. Canada is a G7 country, a major-league country.

It's time we started acting like one.

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