Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Military shuts down MP visits to bases

Program ends after snooping scheme revealed

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A program to educate parliamentarians about the work being done by the Canadian military has been shut down months after it was revealed officers were using such visits to collect information on Defence Minister Peter MacKay's political opponents.

The parliamentary outreach program allowed MPs and senators to visit military units and bases to improve their knowledge of the Canadian Forces.

But the visits became controversial earlier this year when it was revealed officers gathered information on MacKay's political opponents in an effort to help out the beleaguered defence minister.

Air Force officers targeted Scott Simms, a Liberal MP who criticized the decision by MacKay's office to order a search and rescue helicopter to retrieve the minister from a private fishing lodge. That flight cost taxpayers $16,000, according to reports last year.

In addition, officers gathered information on NDP defence critic Jack Harris, who also has criticized MacKay.

The officers were trying to find out if the opposition MPs had ever used military aircraft and, if so, had reimbursed the Canadian Forces for their flights.

But both MPs were visiting bases as part of military efforts to educate them about the Canadian Forces and at no point had they used aircraft for personal reasons.

The Canadian Forces later defended its decision to collect such information and turn it over to MacKay's office, saying the process was no different than its efforts to gather facts for the public and news media.

But some MPs said the military's practice jeopardized the parliamentary outreach program. Former military officers also warned such activities, which prompted allegations about Canadian Forces personnel digging up dirt on the minister's political enemies, crossed the line and jeopardized the long-standing political neutrality of the military.

But now the parliamentary program has been shut down, the military confirmed to the Ottawa Citizen.

"Given the current context of fiscal restraint and the realignment of priorities to available resources, it was decided to discontinue the parliamentary outreach program and to focus on the delivery of other programs," Defence Department official Elizabeth Hodges stated in an email.

"While the Canadian Forces Parliamentary Program has been discontinued, engagement opportunities for parliamentarians will continue in a decentralized manner at the base and wing level."

DND did not provide details about how much will be saved by shutting down the program.

But the NDP's Harris thinks the move is a mistake and doesn't believe cutting the program will save much money. Although he thought it was wrong and misguided for officers to collect information for MacKay on opposition MPs, he believes the parliamentary program was worthwhile.

"It provides a valuable window and perspective to members of Parliament on what the military do and how they operate," Harris said.

He spent three days with search and rescue crews, he said, learning about their jobs. Former NDP leader Jack Layton spent time on a frigate, while other MPs went with army units, he added.

"The military harmed the program by co-operating with MacKay's office and by treating it as a political issue," Harris said. "But I still think they should bring the program back."

The outreach program, he noted, "improves the democratic relationship between Parliament and the military."

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2012 A9

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