Sask. finance minister offers no apology for $8K chartered flight, says overall travel expenses are low

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer defended her $8,000 flight to North Battleford in front of reporters at the Legislature on July 19.  (Radio-Canada - image credit)
Finance Minister Donna Harpauer defended her $8,000 flight to North Battleford in front of reporters at the Legislature on July 19. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

On Tuesday, Saskatchewan's finance minister defended the nearly $8,000 round-trip chartered flight she took from Regina to North Battleford in March.

On March 25, Donna Harpauer took a private plane run by Good Spirit Air Service to present the latest budget at a chamber commerce luncheon in North Battleford.

When she presented the budget at the Legislature two days earlier, Harpauer announced that the government would raise taxes. She said there would be a tax hike on properties and smokers, and a six per cent provincial sales tax on entertainment, gyms, concerts, museums and sporting events. 

When news of her $7,872.60 chartered flight surfaced on Monday, it sparked outrage among Saskatchewan residents, the Sask. NDP, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

Multiple organizations called on Harpauer to apologize on Monday. On Tuesday, she said she would not.

Harpauer admitted that the flight price was high when speaking with media at the Legislature Tuesday.

"I didn't know the price tag at the time, but I had asked for a flight for what I feel is important for my job as finance minister following a budget," she said. "I think that other communities outside of Regina and Saskatoon need an opportunity to ask the minister how the budget impacts those communities."

She said she had nothing to do with booking the flight or vetting the price tag. The Ministry of SaskBuilds and Procurement handles chartered flight bookings.

When asked if she would take the flight again, now that she knows how much it cost, Harpauer said she would.

Moreen Mugerwa/CBC
Moreen Mugerwa/CBC

Asked why she chose to fly rather than drive the 400 kilometres to North Battleford, Harpauer said she was exhausted at the time.

"What I will do for the people of Saskatchewan, I will work very long hours. And I recognize that I will live away from home for the better part as a cabinet minister. What I will not do is drive when I'm exhausted."

On Monday, the province told CBC News that driving is the primary mode of in-province travel for cabinet ministers.

However, the government said, charter flights are used periodically, particularly for longer distances and when long drive times would impact other commitments.

When asked if she had another commitment around the time of her flight to North Battleford, Harpauer said she did not. However, she said she needed to get back to her constituency in Humboldt. But she returned to Regina on March 25, rather than flying to Humboldt.

When asked what she did following the North Battleford trip, she said she does not have her itinerary with her at this time.

Harpauer criticizes media coverage

The finance minister said that when the media broke the story of the nearly $8,000 flight, they fixated on that flight only, rather than her previous travel expenses, which are low.

Harpauer said Saskatchewan residents therefore got the impression that she spends that kind of money all the time.

"I think it's a little disappointing that we're fixating on one trip and not the overall travel. The overall travel for myself is very low. I'm not a frequent flyer. I'm not a big spender on travel."

Moreen Mugerwa/CBC
Moreen Mugerwa/CBC

Harpauer said she spent approximately $11,000 on travel in 2021.

"So when you look at the entire picture, which I think we should in order to be really forthcoming with the public, you will find that this government has brought down travel expenses incredibly from what it used to be."

When asked if she thought $8,000 was reasonable for a flight to North Battleford, Harpauer said that is out of her hands.

Sask. Liberal leader says Harpauer's 'dodging responsibility'

Jeff Walters, leader of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party, called for Harpauer's resignation on Tuesday.

Walters said Saskatchewan residents are dealing with the rising cost of living, a health-care crisis, and "an education system that's teetering on the brink." He said $8,000 is four months wages for somebody on minimum wage.

"Really her taking this trip days after her actually tabling the ideas of raising taxes on people, just shows a bit of tone deafness that regular folks, I think, are really up in arms about. We're looking for accountability for our government. And she just didn't display that today," Walters said.

Kirk Fraser/CBC
Kirk Fraser/CBC

When asked about Harpauer's comments that the media misrepresented the situation, Walters called it a deflection and said she is "dodging responsibility."

"The whole point of having a free media is to do exactly these types of things, pointing out issues or irregularities or potential missteps and even positive things. But it provides a valuable function for our democracy," Walters said.

Walters said it does not matter how little money Harpauer spent on travel in the past. What matters is she spent $8,000 on a flight that should have cost nowhere near that.

Walters said lunches and meetings with constituents are important, but that the finance minister needs to hold her government to a high standard.