Canadian MPs accepted $620K worth of free travel from third parties, foreign entities in 2017
73 MPs, including Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, accepted free travel worth thousands
MPs of all political stripes accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free travel last year, and many of those trips were bankrolled by entities with ties to foreign governments.
House of Commons Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released his annual report Tuesday. It documents sponsored travel undertaken by 73 MPs — more than a fifth of all members — to foreign locales and a handful of Canadian destinations, paid for either wholly or in part by third-party groups.
The MPs expensed $618,051 in transportation, accommodation and "other" fees to these entities. The trips are legal, as long as the dozens of MPs who accept this sort of generosity report their trips to the ethics commissioner annually.
Last year saw a high-water mark for sponsored travel — nearly $100,000 more than each of the annual sums for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of the government ethics watchdog group Democracy Watch, said it's "ludicrous" that MPs are permitted to accept these lavish gifts from third parties — some of them registered to lobby the federal government.
Other groups — like the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association, which represents Taiwanese business interests — should be registered under the Lobbying Act given how often they sponsor free trips for MPs, he said.
Leaving the loophole open means all MPs are fine with being an unethical hypocrite.- Duff Conacher
In May 2016, his group filed a complaint with the former lobbying commissioner, Karen Shepard, asking her to investigate the free travel and rule on whether it can reasonably be seen as a "gift" under the conflict of interest code.
Conacher said he never heard back. He called the office's enforcement record "negligently weak."
"We need to close this huge loophole in the MPs ethics rules that allows lobbyists to just buy influence by sending MPs, and anyone they want with them, to junkets around the world whenever they want," he said in an interview with CBC News.
"Why don't the other 260 MPs, who don't take these trips, stand up and say, 'You're embarrassing all of us, year after year, and we're going to stop it'? Leaving the loophole open means all MPs are fine with being an unethical hypocrite."
While Section 14 of the code prohibits an MP from accepting any gift "that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the member in the exercise of a duty or function of his or her office," Section 15 makes an explicit exemption for sponsored travel.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which is registered to lobby public office holders, paid for 14 MPs to travel to Israel in 2017. The group did not return a request for comment Tuesday. On its website, CIJA said its "missions" come with "no strings attached" for participants.
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Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi, who represents the Toronto-area riding of Willowdale, accepted the most sponsored travel in 2017 with trips to Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Taiwan and Italy at a total cost of $30,000 — billed to the Canadian Lutheran World Relief, The Stanley Foundation, Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association and the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, respectively.
In an interview with CBC News, Ehsassi said trips to the Netherlands and Italy were made in his capacity as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide. He said he'd welcome a study of the notion of providing parliamentary groups with more funds to travel abroad, in place of relying on outside entities to foot the bill.
"It would be high time to examine this issue, and the funding that is provided."
Taiwan top travel destination
Eighteen of the sponsored trips MPs took last year were to Taiwan — the top destination for such trips. They were paid for by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada (which works out of Taiwan's official office in Ottawa), the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association (a Taiwanese business organization) or by the Taiwanese "embassy" itself.
Taiwan has long used the prospect of a free trip to attract the attention of MPs and promote direct ties between Canadian political leaders and Taiwan, which seeks allies in the international community as it squabbles with the much larger People's Republic of China over questions of sovereignty.
Canada's long-standing "One China" policy means it does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but there are strong trade ties and the country has offices in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto.
The trips to Taiwan, which styles itself as the Republic of China, were some of the most costly on the sponsored travel list, while the purposes given for these trips were vague.
According to Dion's report, Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative finance critic, accepted over $21,600 worth of free travel for him and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Anaida Galindo, to visit the southeast Asian country in January 2017.
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party later disputed the figure, saying a staffer made an error when filing reports with the commissioner and claiming Poilievre's air transportation cost was actually $8,000 less than reported.
Poilievre said he traveled to "further cooperation between Canada and Taiwan."
When asked to further explain his motivations, Poilievre said it's important for legislators to "learn how people and governments do things in other democratic countries so we can take the best ideas home."
Vague explanations for pricey travel
Ehsassi accepted $15,060 worth of free travel to "exchange views on topics of mutual interest." He told CBC News he has a sizeable Taiwanese community in his riding and he tries his "utmost to understand their issues, represent and advocate for them as well as I possibly can."
B.C. Liberal MP Jati Sidhu said he embarked on the 24-hour journey to Taiwan for "culture immersion and related foreign affairs."
Saskatchewan NDP MP Erin Weir — who made the trip with six other MPs from April 17-13 — said he went to "promote Saskatchewan exports and learn about Taiwan." His fellow Saskatchewan Conservative, MP Kevin Waugh, said he and his wife Ann made the trip as part of a "parliamentary delegation."
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Robert Kitchen said he and his wife Donna went to "meet legislators, vice-president, business leaders." Quebec Liberal MP Rémi Massé characterized his visit "as a parliamentary exchange to learn more about Taiwan's governance, culture, economy."
Requests for comment from the Taiwanese entities went unanswered.
MPs also took trips financed by the governments of Japan, Hungary, United Arab Emirates and the United States.