PM flew over 50 times to sell stimulus program
By By Tim Naumetz, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper boarded his government jet and took to the skies more than 50 times last year to promote the government's multibillion-dollar economic stimulus program in two-dozen towns and cities.
A total of 34 domestic trips Harper took on government Challenger jets from April 2009 to last December — with 53 destinations or stopovers from coast to coast — cost taxpayers nearly $500,000.
The prime minister spent another $341,080 on a week-long Airbus tour of the Arctic, in part to promote the economic stimulus program and also as part of his plan to demonstrate Canadian sovereignty in the North.
Of the domestic flights Harper took on the Challenger, at least 24 went to cities where he would announce local infrastructure projects funded under the Economic Action Plan, according to records of the travel and statements from the Prime Minister’s Office at the time.
Opposition MPs say the travel, combined with more than $42 million worth of federal advertising for the stimulus package, was part of a concerted effort to highlight the plan while exploiting it for partisan Conservative purposes.
"This is an unprecedented use of public money and services in an attempt to exploit a publicly funded program for blatant partisan purposes," said Liberal MP David McGuinty, who called for an independent office to monitor government advertising.
McGuinty called Harper's Challenger trips a "travelling Conservative roadshow."
Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said the prime minister and other ministers travelled the country "to show Canadians how their government is building a stronger Canada."
To the frustration of the opposition parties, guest lists for the announcements included only local Conservative MPs or, in some cases, premiers where the two levels of government announced joint funding for stimulus projects.
"The absence of any opposition MPs was by design," said New Democrat MP Pat Martin. "I’m going to start bringing a folding lawn chair to these events and just put it on the stage."
Martin said he and other opposition MPs experienced similar problems when previous Liberal governments drew local attention to federal spending initiatives. But he added no previous prime minister has spent so much time travelling the country to take credit himself while also drawing in local members of the party caucus.
"This cross-country cheerleading using the government jets really sets a new record," said Martin. "The Economic Action Plan didn’t benefit by this shameless hop-scotching of Conservative ridings."
MacDougall said the events were restricted to Conservative MPs because "the opposition unfortunately chose to oppose the Economic Action Plan."
While the NDP voted against the budget that included the stimulus measures, the Liberals voted in favour of it.
Harper's Challenger trips included a June 11 flight to Cambridge, Ont., where the prime minister released his second report card on action-plan spending as one of the conditions he had agreed to in return for Liberal support in Parliament.
Harper took a Challenger to Saint John, N.B., in September to release his third report on the plan, even though the Liberals had expected the government to first release the reports in the House of Commons.
The prime minister was immune to that appeal and released the fourth report card on a government Airbus jet while flying to Beijing for an official visit.
The total cost of Harper’s Challenger flights from April last year to December came to $526,771, but they included four trips to New York and Washington and one to Port of Spain for a summit of leaders from the Americas.
Harper’s action plan announcements usually included the presence of at least one cabinet minister and at least one local backbench MP who would benefit from the publicity.
In Queenston, Ont., near Niagara Falls, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was present when Harper announced funding for a rehabilitation of the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge. Local Conservative MP Dean Allison was also watching as Harper told the crowd he was raised nearby, his parents honeymooned in Niagara Falls in 1954, and he had "fond childhood memories" of the area.
The previous day in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., represented in Parliament by New Democrat Tony Martin, Harper invited nearby Simcoe-North Conservative MP Bruce Stanton for the announcement of a bridge expansion over the Canada-U.S. border.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said use of government advertising and travel gives the incumbent government a tremendous advantage not only over the opposition parties, but also fledgling challengers in such a competitive political environment.
"A prime minister will fly to events, and that’s appropriate," said May. "But it’s the exclusivity of it. This kind of travel is unprecedented by a prime minister. It’s a prelude to campaigning, disguised as governing."