Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Librano Jet Set, or Come Fly With Bill Graham

Can ministers spend too much time in the air? That's what the Opposition wanted to know yesterday (edited Hansard):

Mr. Gilles Duceppe (Laurier—Sainte-Marie, BQ): Mr. Speaker, since the beginning of the parliamentary session, the list of scandals related to the squandering of public funds has been growing and illustrates the laxity that reigns within the public administration. After the unjustified expenses of David Dingwall, now we learn that some ministers have been misusing the government's Challenger jets.

With one scandal after another, how does the Prime Minister have the nerve to tell us he learned any lessons from the sponsorship scandal?

Right Hon. Paul Martin (Prime Minister, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, we understand that Canadians demand that the Challengers be used appropriately. That is why there are very clear rules in place.

The use of Challenger jets has to be justified. These planes can be used only for government-related functions and only when commercial options are not available. That is the current policy. It is respected and it must be respected.

Mr. Duceppe: Mr. Speaker, it is very clear that the policy has not been respected and that the rules have not been followed.

Is this not an old Liberal habit to say that the rules have been respected? Is this not the same speech that was used in connection with the sponsorships, instead of acknowledging the facts and taking action? Has it not become routine for the government to break the rules and then unapologetically plead ignorance? Is that not the Liberal way?

[At this point, Defence Minister Bill Graham began to answer on behalf of the PM. It's DND who actually has title to the Challenger jets in question.]

Hon. Bill Graham (Minister of National Defence, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as the Prime Minister clearly said, we have specific rules. We have a very important asset for the country, namely four planes available for ministers and senior public officials and, from time to time, the opposition and other public figures to travel across this large country.

These planes are used in keeping with certain conditions and clear rules, which are always respected in the opinion of the Prime Minister's Office and in my opinion. Some may think otherwise, but I can assure the House and the hon. member that we have rules and we respect them.

Mr. Benoît Sauvageau (Repentigny, BQ): Mr. Speaker, in each of the scandals affecting this government, the ministers always use the same defence: Treasury Board rules have been applied.

How could this reassure us, when we recall that, at the time of the sponsorship scandal, with the theft of tens of millions of dollars, the government answered all of our questions by saying that Treasury Board rules had been complied with?

Hon. Bill Graham: Mr. Speaker, I am not asking members of this House to break Treasury Board rules. I assure hon. members that the PMO and my office work in close conjunction to ensure that these aircraft are not used just any old time. They are a last resort solution, for use solely on government business when commercial options do not allow us to fulfill our responsibilities properly.

That is our policy, a good policy, good for this country and for the efficiency of our government.

You know, saying that "Treasury Board rules were complied with" would probably be a more effective defence if people actually knew what those rules were. Fortunately, they're not hard to find. Here's a link to the relevant page.

One thing to note: these are guidelines, not actual rules. There doesn't appear to be any significant penalty levied if the guidelines are breached:

D.2 Guidelines for Use

Government administrative aircraft are to be used only for government business and under the following circumstances:

-- when the flight is being made to a point where there is no commercial air service;

-- when no space is available on a commercial air service;

-- when, because of difficulties in routings or timetables, substantial savings of essential time can be made by using administrative aircraft in place of commercial services;

-- when sudden changes in plans require emergency air transportation and no commercial air service is available; and

-- when official parties of some size need to travel together and significant advantage can be gained by using a government aircraft.

The guidelines in green are the ones Ministers like to give, because they're perfectly understandable in the context of their work. But note the guideline labelled in red. That's the catchall phrase, the one that gives ministers the excuse to use the jets: rather than call the airlines and find out about timetables, space available, etc., just book one of the jets.

And why not? It's essentially free of charge:

Charges are not levied for use of Challenger aircraft of the Administrative Flight Service (AFS) or for special flights, those which carry members of the Royal Family, the Governor General, the Prime Minister or former Prime Ministers travelling for purposes relating to their former office.

The costs are apparently absorbed by DND, who owns the jets because of their potential military capacity. Not exactly an expense you'd expect for a department that's been struggling to equip and pay the Canadian Forces, right?

Of course, you'd need authorization from the Defence Minister to use the flight, but has there ever been an incidence when he's said no, given the catchall nature of that Red Guideline? It's not like his office actually has the time to check out all the information on the request form. Particularly if you know a jet is available to go.

(You know, if I were Bill Graham, I'd complain: "travel agent for Cabinet" doesn't strike me as needing to be part of my job description.)

Anyway, these guidelines are in serious need of revision, particularly the red one. And if the government is serious about travel accountability, the ownership of those jets should be transferred to Treasury Board. (Public Works would've been a more appropriate department, but I understand their minister's not keen on being a travel agent.)