UCP leader's trip to India raising ethics questions back home

Some Alberta cabinet ministers are raising questions about Official Opposition Leader Jason Kenney’s trip to India, suggesting it may be inappropriate.

Jason Kenney is meeting with government ministers, media on six-day trip

Official Opposition Leader Jason Kenney, left, is leading a UCP delegation on a trip to India, which has raised questions from Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, right, and other NDP government ministers. (CBC)

Some Alberta cabinet ministers are raising questions about Official Opposition Leader Jason Kenney's trip to India, suggesting it may be inappropriate.

Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous said the trip has raised concerns, particularly because he doesn't know how Kenney is representing himself or what his trade policies are.

Bilous has asked Alberta's trade office in India to followup with each of the government officials Kenney met this week, to clarify his role within the Alberta legislature and the government's priorities. 

"We're not about to let this visit of Mr. Kenney's potentially damage the government of Alberta's relationship with India," he said. 

Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, is on a six-day trade trip to India with UCP energy critic Prasad Panda and UCP trade critic Devin Dreeshen. Travel costs are being funded by party donations.

Kenney plans to visit Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar and Jamnagar. According to his Twitter feed, Kenney has met with several cabinet ministers, including Nitin Gadkari, India's minister of infrastructure.

UCP spokesperson Christine Myatt said in a email it was disappointing for Bilous to say Kenney's visit would hurt Alberta. She said Kenney planned to leave partisan politics at home and was taking a "Team Alberta" approach on the trip.

Problem with party-funded trip?

A tweet in which Gadkari referred to Kenney as "Hon'ble minister, Alberta, Canada" raised eyebrows this week, as Kenney holds no such position with the provincial government.

"There is real concern that there could be either misrepresentation, or he could misspeak or he could misunderstand, as we saw in that tweet," Bilous said.

Transportation Minister Brian Mason said he will talk to others within the caucus about whether the NDP should send a complaint to the ethics commissioner.

Mason said if Kenney is representing himself as the UCP leader to Indian government officials, then using party money to fund the trip is a problem.

"He's either there on an approved trip as the leader of the Official Opposition, in which case he's not entitled, as far as I understand … to take outside money, to be funded by partisan donations," Mason told reporters Tuesday.

"Or he's going there as a private individual and not doing government business. But he can't have it both ways."

Myatt, the UCP spokesperson, said Kenney has done nothing improper. The legislative assembly office told her the leader of the Official Opposition can't use that title that is when the the legislature is dissolved or if the MLA no longer leads the caucus. 

Myatt said Kenney consulted with the ethics commissioner about aspects of the trip, such as taking a company plane on a flight to a refinery.

She said the party and its members have every right to determine how to spend party funds, and it's not unusual for opposition politicians to take trips abroad. She attached a letter Kenney sent to Premier Rachel Notley informing her of the visit.

Myatt said Kenney would never misrepresent himself, and said the Indian minister's tweet may have been mis-worded because Kenney travelled to India many times in his capacity as a federal cabinet minister.

"It's quite clear that this latest NDP Smear job is a desperate attempt to distract from its disastrous record," she wrote in an email. 

When the trip was announced last week, the UCP said Kenney would "lead a delegation to India to promote trade, economic diversification, and to reinforce ties with the world's largest democracy."

In the same news release, Kenney said he "championed closer ties between Canada and India" during his time in Parliament, "and I hope to put that experience and connections to work for Alberta should voters elect a conservative government next year."

India on the list for Bilous

Bilous said he spoke to Kenney about his plans after the visit was announced.

"Basically he wants to position himself ahead of the spring election," Bilous said, adding that Kenney is getting ahead of himself, as the decision rests with the voters of Alberta.

Although Kenney frequently criticizes Alberta's NDP government for raising taxes, he touted the province's tax regime as an advantage for Indian investors in the oilsands in a TV interview with CNN-News18, an Indian news channel.

"Canada, amongst the developed countries, Alberta, in particular, have low taxes, we have one of the best-educated work forces, efficient power prices, so we have a lot of strategic advantages for that kind of investment," Kenney told interviewer Mada Siddiqui.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier has made a couple of visits to India on behalf of the Alberta government.

Bilous has never visited India in his role as trade minister, but it's on his list. Carlier has gone instead because the products Alberta exports to India are mostly in the agricultural sector. 

Mason said when he was leader of the NDP, he received permission from the Speaker's office to travel to Alaska to learn more about the state's royalty regime. His visit included a meeting with Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska.

The trip was funded by the legislature and so Mason was allowed to represent himself as an MLA and party leader.