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'Apologies are not enough;' Alberta tightens rules on use of government planes

Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, right, and Doug Horner, President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance, provide an update on the government's response to recommendations in the Auditor General's Special Duty Report on the Expenses of the Office of Premier Redford and Alberta's Air Transportation Services Program, in Edmonton on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

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Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, right, and Doug Horner, President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance, provide an update on the government's response to recommendations in the Auditor General's Special Duty Report on the Expenses of the Office of Premier Redford and Alberta's Air Transportation Services Program, in Edmonton on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON - The Alberta government is tightening rules for government aircraft following a harsh report that outlined inappropriate use of the planes by former premier Alison Redford.

Finance Minister Doug Horner said that guests or family members on the planes will have to be preapproved and commercial flight options considered.

A quarterly update with details of all flights and their costs is also to be done, he said Tuesday.

A ban on using the planes for out-of-province travel remains. Redford brought in the restriction after questions arose last spring about her travel habits, including a $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Horner said it will be up to whomever is chosen Alberta premier next month in the Tory leadership race to make any further changes.

Earlier this month, auditor general Merwan Saher found that Redford and her office used government aircraft for personal and partisan use.

He said there was an "aura of power" surrounding Redford and her office, along with "a perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned."

Dave Hancock, who took over from Redford when she resigned as premier in March, apologized for the misuse of the planes. But he also pointed out that Saher made clear that the blame falls squarely on the former premier and her office.

"He takes pains to say that his findings should not be extrapolated out to others across government," Hancock said. "But, even so, there's no question that Albertans feel let down by their government and that means all of us," he said.

"Each of us knows the rules and it is up to each of us to make sure that we are adhering to those rules at all times — whether we're taking planes, we're talking travel expenses or anything.

"We know what is appropriate and we know what isn't."

Hancock also defended his finance minister, who has been criticized since the report was released for not keeping a closer eye on what was going on. There have also been calls from the opposition for Horner's resignation.

"Ultimately, the oversight and management of the use of planes is the responsibility of the minister in charge of them," Hancock acknowledged. "In practice and in reality, the responsibility is that of members of cabinet who use the planes.

"Minister Horner trusted each of us to be responsible for our use of the planes and reminded us of the rules a number of times."

Saher found that Redford's office block-booked "false passengers" on government planes to make it look like flights were full and to ensure she could fly alone. The names were removed at the last minute.

He also said Redford's daughter flew with her on the planes at least 50 times. Some of those trips were for private reasons.

Saher said government-related activities were sometimes scheduled for the same day as party functions, so the planes could be used.

Hancock apologized for one of those flights to Grande Prairie on Oct. 25, 2012. He had earlier defended the trip by saying a news conference was scheduled for the same day about the local hospital. But the news conference was cancelled and the auditor general said he found no other scheduled government business in the city that day.

"In retrospect, and based on the auditor general's conclusions, I believe the plane should have been cancelled once the event was called off," Hancock said.

The party has reimbursed the government $6,500 for three flights Saher found Redford took solely for party purposes.

Hancock said the government will work hard to rebuild the trust of Albertans.

"I know apologies are not enough, nor is promising not to do it again," he said.

"We have to take action. We have to fix what needs to be fixed."

Redford announced her resignation as a backbench member of the legislature the day before Saher's report was released. She said she would not be commenting on the findings.

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