Clark whistles up Air Force taxi

By Patrick Gower

The Prime Minister commandeered an Air Force plane to whisk her to an appointment with Grey Power in Invercargill yesterday.

High winds closed Wellington airport and like hundreds of others, Helen Clark could not get a commercial flight out. Her office made a phone call to Defence Force headquarters, and she was driven up to Ohakea air base where a seven-seater King Air plane was waiting.

She was flown south to keep her appointment - a speech to Grey Power Southland at the Invercargill Workingmen's Club.

Arriving an hour-an-a-half late, the Prime Minister was warmly received by the 150-strong crowd who had waited patiently.

As the battle for the elderly vote heats up, Labour has been accused by NZ First of "stealing its thunder".

A spokesman for Helen Clark said she was there on "official Government business", as she had been invited by Grey Power as Prime Minister.

The official election campaign "has not started yet".

The Air Force was used to transport the Prime Minister on rare occasions when commercial schedules were unworkable, and the flight was "entirely appropriate".

Act MP Heather Roy said the flight was "an abuse of [Helen Clark's] position".

Ms Roy today said the election campaign had effectively begun and it was disingenuous of Miss Clark to suggest the trip did not amount to campaigning.

"She was there for electioneering purposes, pure and simple," she said.

"She used her position for an advantage over other parties."

Ms Roy said a chartered flight would have cost about $15,000 and Helen Clark should pay back the Air Force and declare the cost as an election expense.

Helen Clark earlier indicated she would rely on the Air Force to transport her around the country more frequently after the suggestion she get her own personal plane was made in the fallout after her motorcade broke the speed limit to get her to an All Blacks test in 2004.

The Air Force is funded for 100 hours of King Air VIP flights each year.

It flew 98 of its allocated hours last year, but had flown less than 30 this year.

The service is primarily used by the Prime Minister, but it also carries visiting dignitaries, the Governor-General and other Government members. It is not available to Opposition leader John Key.

An Air Force spokesman said the fleet of five King Airs was used primarily for training, but if one was ready and crew were available, it would provide a flight at short notice.

It was also a training opportunity for the crew.

"It is not as if we drop everything and fly VIPs around," the spokesman said.

Helen Clark's speech was about an updated code of practice for retirement villages, but she spoke of the Government's policy gains for the elderly such as the SuperGold card and took questions from the floor.

Grey Power Southland president Geoff Piercy said Helen Clark, who told the audience she was not going to let weather stand in the way of her appointment, "went down a treat".

Mr Piercy commended her "intestinal fortitude" for making it and had no problem with her using the Air Force.

"I thought the world of her for doing it.

"She kept her word about coming down and we thought that was absolutely splendid."

- With NZPA

- NZ Herald

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