Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Flexible diplomacy" using your inflexible tax dollars!

Spending on casual diplomacy for MPs and senators quietly cut by Ottawa

By Jordon Press, Postmedia News
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Bev Oda, International Development Minister and Conservative jet-setter. (Chris Wattie/Reuters files)

OTTAWA — In late October 2011, two Canadian senators flew to Russia, bound for Moscow and a special meeting of parliamentarians from NATO member countries.

After two days of private meetings, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin and Senator Jane Cordy left with a sense that the “persistence of Cold War stereotypes and suspicions” still bedevilled talks between NATO countries and Russia, according to a two-page report to Parliament.

They also left with a $13,767.68 bill, including $5,467 in transportation costs for each senator — including airfare and ground transportation costs — and about $220 per night, per person for the three-night stay.

The trip was one of four the NATO association took last year, trips that totalled more than $150,000 in 2011. The Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association — comprising 31 MPs and 18 unelected senators — is one of the most expensive of 12 inter-parliamentary associations and four groups meant to connect Canadian federal politicians outside of cabinet with their global counterparts.

The trips are for business, parliamentarians say, and the money — almost $4 million last year — spent on what they call flexible diplomacy pays off in ways they say that can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.

“I’m a pretty cynical guy at the best of times, but … we’re doing everything we can to leave the impression that these are not holidays,” said Senator David Tkachuk, co-chair of the Joint Interparliamentary Council, which oversees the budget for the associations and groups.
But dollars and cents matter in an era of fiscal restraint, which is why parliamentarians quietly cut their budgets for casual diplomatic activities in March.

“We’re buying and selling ideas,” Tkachuk said. “We all just have to be a lot more efficient.”

Any parliamentarian can take part in as many groups as they wish — including the Canada-Africa Association, the Canada-China Legislation Association, the Canada-Ireland Interparliamentary Group, and the Canadian Branch of the Assemblee Parlementaire de la Francophonie. About three-quarters of the more than 400 parliamentarians sign up for associations, according to the Joint Interparliamentary Council, or JIC.
The cost of casual diplomacy: Four trips in 2011 from the Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association.
Date: May 27-30
Location: Varna, Bulgaria
Delegation: Senator Raynell Andreychuk, Senator Jane Cordy, Senator Joseph Day, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin; two staff members.
Transportation: $26,016
Accommodation: $4,026.93
Per diems: $2,196.45
Official gifts: $42.60
Miscellaneous: $778.99
Total: $33,070.97
Date: July 11-14
Location: Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta.; Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
Delegation: Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, Conservative MP Leon Benoit; four staff.
Transportation: $34,200.24
Accommodation: $7,242.43
Hospitality: $13,250.91
Per diems: $2,606.60
Miscellaneous: $6,320.20
Total: $63,620.38
Date: October 7-10
Location: Bucharest, Romania
Delegation: Senator Raynell Andreychuk, Senator Jane Cordy, Senator Joseph Day, Sentor Pierre Claude Nolin, Conservative MP Leon Benoit, NDP MP Glenn Thibeault, two staff.
Transportation: $32,633.77
Accommodation: $6,501.43
Hospitality: $109.50
Per diems: $3,884.88
Total: $43,129.58
Date: November 1-2
Location: Moscow, Russia
Delegation: Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, Senator Jane Cordy
Transportation: $10,934.18
Accommodation: $1,957.29
Per diems: $864.21
Miscellaneous: $12
Total: $13,767.68
The number of trips they take will decline in the coming years as spending is reduced by 20.4 per cent by 2014, with 11.3 per cent of the cuts coming this year.

The 2012-13 budget for parliamentary associations has been set at $3.92 million, a decrease from the $4.42 million budgeted in 2011-10. That budget is expected to drop by a further $360,000 next fiscal year, bringing the allotment to $3.56 million.

The details about where parliamentarians and staff stay during their visits is not publicly available, unless the MPs or senators who take part in the trips decide to release them. So it’s impossible to know if someone stays at, say, the Savoy while at a conference in London — as International Development Minister Bev Oda did last year — or whether they made more economical choices.

Expense forms for members of these groups detail how much was spent on items such as accommodations and travel, but don’t detail where the money was spent. (Oda, on the other hand, was obliged to reveal the details of her spending as a result of an access to information request, which showed the amounts, including a $16 glass of orange juice.)

“Nobody that I know has stayed at the Savoy,”said NDP MP Denise Savoie, co-chair of the JIC.

Where delegations stay overseas is mostly determined by the host country, which selects hotels for security reasons as well as proximity to the meeting site, said Nolin, who is the NATO association’s treasurer, requiring him to be at all meetings.

Expense sheets were made public earlier this month for four events that Nolin and other parliamentarians on the NATO association attended. Of the $153,588 spent on the four events, the $63,620 spent on a charter plane, accommodations and hosting delegations in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta., and Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to showcase Canada’s energy sector, was the most expensive.

(The NATO group was the most expensive association in 2010-2011, the most recent numbers available, spending $636,549. The second most expensive? At $567,074, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which “supports the efforts of the United Nations,” according to its website.)

It also cost $4,636 to send Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette to Berlin, Germany, on a last-minute trip with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and G20 members Nov. 6-8, 2011, according to a spending report tabled in the Senate last week.

The JICis formally discouraging subcommittees from travelling and committees are being encouraged to conduct business over the phone or video conferencing, according to the minutes of a JIC meeting in March. (The meetings are open to the public.) Delegations are being asked to stay as small as possible — just enough to get the job done — and that tickets for airlines be bought no less than four weeks in advance to keep airfare costs reasonable.

The JIC is also asking associations and committees to give a more detailed explanation to justify expense requests while the federal government cuts back on spending — $5.2 billion over the next three years — to balance the budget.

“MPs have to do their part,” Savoie said. “We’ve asked all associations to cut back on their budgets.”

Nolin said his financial marching orders are stricter than those imposed by other countries.

“Of course we have cuts and we are going to live with that,” he said.


Ever seen a politician who takes a worse picture? At least she's not puffing on a cigarette standing next to the Minister of Health!


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