Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why couldn't these taxpayer spend thrifts stay at a Motel 6 or better yet a 'friendly' Bates Motel?

Premier defends MLA travel costs of $744,130 last year

By Darcy Henton and James Wood
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Premier Alison Redford called international trips by MLAs "incredibly important" vowing to continue to invest in travel. "We export to other places in the world and we need to make sure we are telling our story and providing the support to Alberta companies, that need us to be there, as well as attracting foreign investment here. (Photograpy: Manuel Balce Ceneta/ American Press)

The Redford government boosted international travel by $130,000 last year to a near-record $744,130 and has already racked up another $218,000 this year, despite a forecast sixth consecutive deficit and demands that doctors, teachers and civil servants tighten their belts.

Led by Premier Alison Redford, Tory MLAs and cabinet ministers spent more than $1.3 million over the past two years on 80 trips to the United States and 30 other countries.

Redford made six trips last year — to China, Japan, Korea, South Africa and the United States — and nine in 2012. The travel costs don’t include the expenses of senior department officials and security officers who often accompany her.

The Premier’s travel bill hit $183,323 last year and tallied $288,735 a year earlier, according to two years of government travel reports compiled by The Herald. These totals include expenses racked up by other ministers, who accompanied the premier on some of her trips in each year.

Redford made no apologies for her government’s extensive international travel when questioned about it last week before embarking on the province’s largest-ever trade mission.

Click here for a map showing where Alberta ministers travelled in 2012-13 and how much those trips cost.

Speaking to reporters in Calgary before leaving on a $120,200 visit to India and Switzerland, the Premier said it’s crucial for Alberta politicians to be on the ground in other countries talking about the province’s energy resources and environmental record.

“At the end of the day we are a province that is driving the economic growth of this country,” she said. “We are the province with the resources that are in demand around the world and the best possible way for us to continue to develop those markets is to go where people want to talk to decision-makers about what’s happening.”

She vowed to continue “to invest” in international travel, saying the trips are “incredibly important.”

“We export to other places in the world and we need to make sure we are telling our story and providing the support to Alberta companies that need us to be there, as well as attracting foreign investment here.”

The premier has announced two agricultural agreements with states in India since the mission began Sunday, but industry officials described them Monday as small steps toward the goal of accessing the market of more than one billion people.

While some businesses applaud the international missions, opposition critics questioned the need for such extensive travel during a period of fiscal restraint.

“They have spent in the last two years well over a million dollars in travel at the same time they’re asking provincial employees to take zero per cent over the next three years,” said NDP Leader Brian Mason.
“That really smacks of hypocrisy. They want fiscal restraint for everybody else, but they are not willing to practise it themselves.”

The PC government tallied the growing travel costs despite the province experiencing the largest disaster in its history as a result of massive flooding in southern Alberta in spring 2013, and an election in 2012.
Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said the Premier and her caucus could have accomplished the same results much more frugally.

“She’s certainly running the Expedia.ca travel gnome to the point of exhaustion,” Anderson said in an email.
“As much as I loved her pictures of the Taj Mahal on Twitter, perhaps she should have looked at ways to trim the $120,000 price tag of that trip down a touch. Her travel entourage is becoming a bit sultan-like in size.”

Liberal critic Kent Hehr said some government travel is necessary, but the Redford government appears to be travelling more and spending more at a time when it can’t even balance the budget.

“We’re not isolationist, but there appears to be a number of trips by PC MLAs that may be of limited value,” Hehr said.

The Calgary MLA also questioned the usefulness of the premier’s repeated trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport Alberta bitumen to the Gulf coast, since the decision will ultimately be made by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Hehr called the trips “window-dressing” aimed more at influencing Albertans back home than being useful efforts to secure the pipeline.

Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said he’s puzzled by the significant increase in travel costs between 2012 and 2013 given that the issues facing the province — the Keystone pipeline and opening new markets in Asia — have not changed significantly.

Fildebrandt said some trips by ministers may have value, but he criticized others as “fun junkets.”

But International and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Cal Dallas, who is currently in India and heading to Singapore, said the face-to-face contact is critical because global exports account for more than a third of Alberta’s economy.

“We will continue to aggressively sell Alberta to the world and position Alberta as a safe and attractive place for foreign investment,” he said in an email.

He touted a mission to China last fall, saying it led to $355 million in trade and investment and the signing of a deal to increase energy trade.

Trent Marx, president of Resource Energy Solutions, said his company, which provides oil and gas drilling, financial planning and software to world markets, has joined five trade missions in the past four years because they boost business.

“They are invaluable if you are looking to expand into new countries and regions,” Marx said in an email from India where he is travelling with the Redford mission.

“They are well organized by very good people, and on every mission you will meet the key contacts that might otherwise take you years to get a meeting with.

“International growth inevitably means jobs for our Alberta-based head office, which means more taxation revenue for Alberta and more benefits to the Albertans,” he added.



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