House essay: MPs, Senators travel for free but at what cost?

http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/09/22/pol-the-house-essay-mps-sponsored-travel-junkets.html?cmp=rss

House essay: MPs, Senators travel for free but at what cost?
By Evan Solomon, CBC News Posted: Sep 22, 2012 1:25 PM ET Last Updated: Sep 22, 2012 1:54 PM ET

[Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio’s The House, reflects on the rules surrounding ‘sponsored travel’ or travel junkets after five Canadian politicians accepted a free trip to Guatemala at the invitation of Canadian mining giant Goldcorp, in his weekly radio essay as heard on The House Sept. 22.]

Is anything really free these days, or is there always a little string attached?

When a company offers to fly you on a private jet to a far off country, feed you and put you up in a hotel, do they really want anything in return?

Is your independence compromised?

These are the questions raised this week in the House of Commons when four MPs and a Senator took a private jet to Guatemala for a three-day tour a mining operation.The trip was paid for by Goldcorp, one of Canada’s biggest mining companies, that operates a huge mine in Guatemala.

Let’s be clear: no rules were broken.

The MPs and the Senator followed guidelines that regulate “sponsored travel” or junkets.

What are those guidelines?

According to the conflict of interest code, MPs are allowed to take fully-paid-for trips valued at more than $500, as long as they file, within 60 days, a statement to the federal ethics commissioner.

But you may be surprised by how little detail they need to include.

MPs have to reveal who paid for the trip, who they took with them, where they went, for how long, the purpose of the trip and then the cost of the benefits – meaning what the travel accommodation and gifts might be worth.

They are also asked to provide supporting documents to prove the costs, but these are often not available.

So, where they stayed? Not listed. Where they ate or drank? Not there. Who attended the closed door meetings? Not listed. Who they spoke to? Also not there. What they did every day? Also not listed.

2011 travel junkets
The ethics commisioner publishes the lists of sponsored travel every March and it makes for interesting reading.

For example, last year Conservative MP Devinder Shory went to India on the dime of the Friends of Gujarat for two weeks — from Jan.7-21, 2011.

Shory attended the Vibrant Gujarat Exhibition. Interestingly, the exhibition was only on display from Jan.10-13, 2011.

So what did Shory do the other 10 days? We don’t know. He does note that his accommodation and transportation was worth $2,292.78.

But it’s also interesting to note that fellow Conservative MP Patrick Brown was also on the same trip as Shory.

Members of Parliament must report junkets or ‘sponsored travel’ to the federal ethics commissioner. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Although Brown only stayed 10 days, that’s four days less than Shory, his travel and accommodation were worth $3,600, that’s $1,307.22 higher than Shory.

Why the discrepancy? Did Brown stay in a different hotel? Who knows.

Speaking of India, Liberal MP Stephane Dion went to India sponsored by the Energy and Resource Institute to attend a summit there for five days.

He cites travel and accommodation costs of $2,150, almost the same as Shory’s two-week stay. But then, Dion did not submit any supporting documents for the public to see any details whatsoever, while Shory did.

Then there is fellow Liberal Jim Karygiannis, who openly brags in the media about being the MP who has accepted the most sponsored travel trips since he was elected.

Karygiannis took a five-day trip to Greece in January 2011, paid for by the Parliament of Greece.

The purpose of the trip? Listed simply as “conference.”

What conference? Was it a five-day event? No details, no supporting documents submitted.

NDP MP Yvon Godin was flown to Las Vegas by the United Steelworkers on Aug.16, 2011 to be a speaker, a trip worth over $2,000. That’s not unusual.

Even former NDP leader Jack Layton took a trip to Disney World on the dime of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

All this is perfectly legal, but does it affect the independence of our MPs?

Let’s go back to the Goldcorp sponsored trip to Guatemala.

Two of the MPs on that trip, Conservative MP Dean Allison and Conservative MP Dave Van Kesteren, sit on the Standing Commitee of Foreign Affairs and International Development. And Allison is the Chair.

That committee is studying the “Role of the Private Sector in Achieving Canada’s International Development Interests”, and mining operations play a huge role there.

In fact, the VP of Goldcorp testifed before that committee recently asking the Canadian government to lobby the government in Guatemala to “modernize their mining regulations.”

As MiningWatch in Canada pointed out, there is concern about a Guatemalan government proposal to increase state participation in mining projects.

So, is a fully paid-for trip on a private jet of a mining company really the best way for government officals to learn about mining operation?

It’s all within the rules, of course, but should the rules be changed? Should sponsored travel be banned?

Is it really just lobbying in disguise or is this all about getting informed MPs?

What do you think?

Let me know. Just send me an email at thehouse@cbc.ca

It’s free.

I promise.

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