OTTAWA – In the NHL season of the head shot, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have seen this one coming.
The Conservative leader was at TD Garden on Wednesday night as the Bruins tried to even their best-of-seven series with the Vancouver Canucks in Boston.
But word of Harper’s flight to Bean Town with his daughter Rachel and Heritage Minister James Moore on a government jet had opposition critics stepping up to the Tory blue-line to lower the boom.
Opposition MPs were incensed that Harper—who used to rail about government abuse of its executive jets—is flying to Boston on the taxpayers’ dime for a hockey game even as his government is on a mission to slash some $4 billion per year in “fat” from federal programs and services.
“Excuse me, aren’t we in a time of tightening our belts? Aren’t we in a time of making sure that we use our money wisely?” fumed Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis.
New Democrat Charlie Angus noted “how important it is politically” for Harper to associate himself with the Stanley Cup and Canada’s remaining team.
“The whole world would love to be in his shoes, but we are not and he is the man saying again and again … we are going to do things differently,” said Angus. “Well, there’s two rules, there is one for Mr. Harper and his gang and one rule for everyone else.”
“Expenditures of tax dollars and increasing his enormous carbon footprint is a bad idea,” chirped Elizabeth May, the Green party leader.
Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said the prime minister is buying his own game tickets and paying the equivalent of a commercial airline ticket for himself and Rachel on the Defence Department Challenger jet. The PMO said later Harper paid $1,000 for two game tickets.
“The Prime Minister is not allowed to fly commercially if he wanted to,” added Soudas.
But as a politician who’s dished out his own world of hurt on the use of Challenger jets in years past, Harper was not going to be allowed to enter the Boston zone cleanly.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae has often groused that Harper leads a government that “throws the ball at your head every time.”
Just before he became prime minister in 2006, Harper ripped Liberal ministers for traversing the country, looking “out the windows of their $11,000 per hour Challenger jet flights …. They just don’t get what real life is like for ordinary Canadians.”
Turnabout being fair play, Rae stepped up Wednesday.
“I’ve got nothing against people going to watch a hockey game but … I don’t think you can hardly say that’s an official visit by the prime minister of Canada to the United States.”
Harper showed up to TD Garden with a significant security detail of eight to 10 people. Wearing suit jacket and collared shirt, he sat 12 rows back of the ice near the blue-line. He chatted with fans near his seats and posed for pictures, smiling and waving.
Harper, a huge fan who has claimed for almost a decade to be writing a book on the game’s history, was a fixture at Canada’s games during the Vancouver Olympics.
Environment Minister Peter Kent maintained the trip to Boston is more than just a personal junket for the hockey-obsessed prime minister.
“He’s representing Canada,” Kent said.
“It is a major sporting event. Certainly, for many Canadians it’s the equivalent to the final hockey game in Olympic competition and the prime minister has made the commitment that he’s paying his own way.”
Given the oft-cited Conservative figure of $11,000 per hour to fly the Challenger, Harper’s commercial airfare won’t begin to cover the cost.
Defence department officials could not immediately provide the current per-hour operating cost of the Challenger.
Military documents, obtained in 2007 through Access to Information, suggested at the time the cost of operating the jets range from $9,124 to $11,541 per hour.
However, most of the money is a fixed cost that accrues whether the jet is flying or not.
Tory MP David Tilson chided reporters for making a mountain out of a molehill, maintaining that Harper has been “very rigid” about paying his own way to hockey games, even when they’re in Ottawa.
“He’s a rabid hockey fan and I know that every ticket that he buys to go to hockey games, no matter where they are, is paid out of his own pocket.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton basically ignored the cost factor, sniffing that Harper will “have to defend that, won’t he? I won’t be on the plane.”
Layton was more interested in expounding on the NDP’s call for “a royal commission on the whole issue of head injuries in hockey.”
“It was something that had widespread support prior to the election and we would call on the government to embrace our proposal there,” Layton said.
Boston’s Nathan Horton was knocked out of the final with a severe concussion after taking a late hit from Vancouver’s Aaron Rome in Game 3. Rome was suspended for the rest of the final.
The Canucks are looking to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal won it back in 1993.
Vancouver took the first two games on home ice and hosts Game 5 on Friday.
—With files from Gregory Strong in Boston.