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"I cannot do my job by bicycle" high flying cabinet minister says

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:25 p.m. May 7, 2007]

OTTAWA  — Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn vehemently denied Monday opposition allegations that his office failed to disclose $150,000 in airplane rental expenses last year.  

"C'est clean," Blackburn told reporters after question period. 

"I cannot do my job by bicycle. I have to use that kind of plane and I have to accomplish my responsibility to be every day for question period. Everything is very, very correct."

In addition to being Labour minister, Blackburn is minister for Quebec economic development, a job that involves making numerous funding announcements in local communities. 

Documents obtained by the NDP show that Blackburn took more than 20 trips last year using an assortment of different charter aircraft companies to travel around Quebec. 

But those rental costs do not appear anywhere on the minister's proactive disclosure Web page for hospitality and travel expenses. 

Blackburn denied that his office was hiding the expenses. 

"Everything is there. It's all on the site," he said. 

However, Blackburn said the expenses are not listed under his ministerial expenses but instead appear on the departmental web site. 

The contracts for aircraft rental appear on the Canada Economic Development  for Quebec Regions Web site along with dozens of other contracts for departmental computer software rental and other services. 

The aircraft rental contracts disclosed on the departmental page do not specifically mention they were for the use of the minister. 

But Blackburn defended not disclosing the contracts on his ministerial expense disclosure page.  

"When I'm making travel for the department, this spending is on the department (site)," he said.

The NDP rejects Blackburn's distinction. 

"I thought the minister was in charge of the department," said NDP Leader Jack Layton. "It's called ministerial responsibility. I think trying to hide behind those sorts of technicalities does not make sense."

NDP MP Pat Martin accused Blackburn's office of hiding the travel expenditures in the "bowels" of his department and said the practice goes against the "spirit and the letter" of the Federal Accountability Act. 

"It should be readily transparent, not hidden away," Martin told PoliticsWatch.  

"It's like some squirrel hiding his nuts. They've got little bits and pieces of his spending spirited away all over the place. If an ordinary Canadian wanted to answer the simple question 'How much is the minister is spending?' they'd have to hire a researcher to find it."

The Liberals and the NDP have been suspicious of the Conservatives low balling their travel and hospitality expenses by finding loopholes in proactive disclosure rules. 

While defending Blackburn in question period on Monday, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan boasted about how the travel and hospitality expenses of the Conservative government in 2006 were much lower than those of the Liberal government in 2005.  

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