Hockey patriotism à la PMO

“We make no apologies for cheering on a Canadian team!”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to Boston last night to see the Canucks play the Bruins in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals reminded of a similar toot to Edmonton in 2006, when the PM and bunch of Conservative MPs took a Challenger to see the Oilers play the Hurricanes in Game 6.

I’m posting an interview I did June 19, 2006, with Sandra Buckler, then the PM’s director of communications, as it raises several of the same issues in play with the Boston trip this week.


I found her robotic repetition of the phrase, “We make no apologies for cheering on a Canadian team” most instructive (not to mention the “that’s the kind of reporter you are”). Expect that line to be repeated to justify the expense of flying a Challenger jet, at taxpayer expense, to Boston to see this series.

For reference, here’s the story that resulted:

Harper’s hockey junket draws fire: PM, six MPs, staff jet to Edmonton for Game 6 of Stanley Cup
Tue Jun 20 2006
By Glen McGregor
The Ottawa Citizen

It was the ultimate boys’ night out: A flight aboard an executive jet and tickets to the biggest hockey game of the year.

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a group of Conservative MPs, the dream road trip became a reality on Saturday night when they flew from Ottawa to Edmonton aboard a government jet to watch the Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Mr. Harper was accompanied at the game by four PMO staff members, six MPs and an unspecified number of RCMP officers from his protective detail.

While Mr. Harper and the MPs all paid for their hockey tickets, the optics of the trip leave a bad taste for at least one critic.

“The idea that you can take a private jet and get tickets to Game 6, that’s a pretty incredible thing to be able to do,” said Ontario Liberal MP Mark Holland. He noted that the coveted seats to the sold-out game were unavailable to the average person.

And while he understands Mr. Harper has to fly on the Challenger jets for security reasons, Mr. Holland questioned the appearance of all the MPs hopping aboard the Department of Defence jet. Most Canadians, he said, would have trouble with “the idea that you load it up with your friends and head off to a playoff game.”

Edmonton Conservative MP Laurie Hawn listed the other Tory MPs at the game as Rahim Jaffer, Kevin Sorenson, Mike Lake, James Rajotte and Manitoba MP Rod Bruinooge, who flew in from Winnipeg.

Mr. Harper sat in the 15th row of the “Gold Club” section, near the visitors’ blue line, in a seat that sold for $390 plus taxes during the finals — but would have commanded a price of hundreds of dollars more on the street. Scalpers were asking $1,000 for prime seats for Game 6.

The MPs sat in a section higher up in Rexall Place, but took turns sitting in seats next to Mr. Harper, across from the television cameras.

Mr. Jaffer identified the PMO staff at the game as press secretary Carolyn Stewart-Olsen; deputy press secretary Demitri Soudas; Mr. Harper’s executive assistant, Ray Novak; and special assistant Karine Leroux. Because the PMO bought only two tickets, most of the PMO staff and RCMP did not have seats.

Mr. Harper’s communications director, Sandra Buckler, said the staff were on hand to provide security and co-ordinate the media interviews the prime minister did that night. They did not watch the game, she said.

The prime minister was already planning to fly west aboard the Challenger for a speech at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver yesterday, so it was convenient to stop in Edmonton en route, she said.

“The prime minister and all MPs paid for their own tickets,” she said. “We make no apologies for cheering on a Canadian team.”

The tickets were arranged with help from Mr. Lake, who worked in ticket sales for the Oilers before entering politics, and were purchased directly from the team.

Mr. Lake allowed that the average fan would not have been able to buy seats for that game, but he said it was good for the community to see Mr. Harper and the MPs out supporting the small-market team.

“It was very important for them to have us come to the game,” he said.

Mr. Jaffer said he and several other Edmonton-area MPs began lobbying the prime minister to come after the Oilers won Game 5 on Wednesday, forcing another game in Edmonton.

“We thought if he could stop by and see the game and be there, it would be a real boost to the city.”

So on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Harper and four of the MPs flew from Ottawa to Edmonton aboard one of the Challenger jets that DND operates. To protect other passengers, the prime minister is not allowed to take commercial flights.

The MPs contacted by the Citizen said their trip to the game saved the government money. Because they hopped a ride on the Challenger, they didn’t have to pay for commercial flights back to their ridings.

I followed up with an Access to Information and Privacy request to see how much the trip really cost taxpayer. Here’s how that went….

PM’s department takes 4 years to release Cup expense claims; Long delays weaken open-record law: critics
Mon Dec 20 2010
By Glen McGregor
The Ottawa Citizen

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s department took four years to release basic expense reports from a 2006 trip to see a Stanley Cup hockey game in Edmonton.

The Privy Council Office has released what appears to be a routine accounting of hotel and restaurant bills incurred when Harper and his staff flew to the game to watch the Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of the final.

The Citizen requested the documents in November 2006, through the Access to Information Act, but received them only in October.

The long lag is emblematic of the long delays that critics say weaken Canada’s open-records law.

With the Conservatives successfully campaigning on ethics and austerity earlier that year, opposition MPs criticized Harper’s decision to take six Tory MPs and his staff members to Edmonton aboard a government Challenger jet in June 2006.

A Liberal MP said most Canadians would have trouble with “the idea that you load it up with your friends and head off to a playoff game.”

When the Citizen filed the request for details of other costs, the Privy Council Office initially released claims filed by two bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office, but did not provide the same records for the PMO officials known to be on the trip.

The PCO cited privacy considerations and said that an accounting of the travel costs was already in the public domain on the PCO website.

Under the proactive disclosure policy enacted under Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the travel and hospitality expenses of senior officials and ministerial staff are posted on their departmental websites.

The listings, however, provided only summaries of the costs, with total amounts for accommodation, meals or airfare for a single trip. They do not show how much each cost.

The Citizen appealed the PCO’s refusal to release the records to then-information commissioner John Reid.

Reid’s office was heavily backlogged with complaints and he was fighting a pitched battle with the Harper government over the limits of access to ministerial records. For more than three years, the Citizen request sat in the system.

It was not until October, with a renewed investigation under new Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, that the PCO finally agreed to release the documents — and only after the Citizen supplied specific names of the PMO staff believed to have filed expense claims. Legault’s office said the Citizen’s complaint was well-founded.

The documents show Harper was accompanied on the trip by aides Karine Leroux, Ray Novak, and his then-press secretary Carolyn Stewart Olsen, who has since been elevated to the Senate.

All four filed identical expense reports claiming $671.81 each for hotel, meals and incidentals on the trip to Edmonton and Vancouver, although Leroux added an $11 taxi ride to her claim.

The Privy Council Office did not respond to a request for comment on the delay and it is unclear why the department resisted releasing the records. Some users of the Access to Information Act believe government delays records believed to be politically contentious until their news value has dissipated.

The Prime Minister’s Office said at the time that he was paying for his own hockey tickets to the game. It further rationalized the cost of the Challenger flight by noting that Harper was on his way to an event in Vancouver, anyway, so a stop in Edmonton added little cost.

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