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High flying hypocrites

Politicians want you to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t ask them to reduce their air travel to exotic locations.

Colin Craig - July 27, 2008

Recently, it has been next to impossible to find a politician not talking about the need to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically enough, it's almost next to impossible to pick up a newspaper and not find a story of a politician flying off to a conference in an exotic location. Isn't there an old saying "practice what you preach?"

While few will argue that there isn't a need for our elected officials to travel from time to time, it is clear that some of the discretionary travel could be averted. Not only would a reduction in travel save taxpayers' millions nation-wide, it would force politicians to live up to the emission standards they expect everyone else to meet.

When Manitoba Premier Doer attends first ministers' conferences, that's appropriate; it's his job to represent Manitoba. When cabinet ministers meet with their provincial colleagues, that's also usually a reasonable use of tax dollars. However, what raises the eyebrows of the public and watchdog groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, are all the other little junkets for various conferences and cha-cha festivals. Oddly enough, many seem to occur in warm climates and during our cold winter months.

Take the decision last January by five senators to fly off to Cuba for an eight day fact finding mission. Not surprisingly, they stayed at a five star resort and took a few staff with them. Certainly the $72,000 budget for their trip would be enough to ensure they had a good time.

Closer to home, Hugh McFadyen, Manitoba's opposition leader, recently met with officials in the Philippines at the taxpayers' expense. One really has to question the need for an opposition leader to travel there, especially on the heels of our premier's visit in February.

Even our "cash-strapped" City of Winnipeg government has caught the travel bug. Last year the city spent almost $22,000 sending eleven councillors and two staff to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference. While it's legitimate for councillors to meet with their colleagues from other cities to learn innovative ideas and best practices, it's not unreasonable to consider sending two or three each year and asking them to present their findings to the rest when they return.

Not surprisingly, bureaucrats are also in on the frequent flyer game. Take Jacques Bensimon, former chairman of the National Film Board of Canada. In 2006 alone, Mr. Bensimon spent $102,000 on travel, including trips to Brazil, Washington D.C., London, Los Angeles, Cape Town, and three trips to Paris. Someone needs to make a movie about his exploits.

One thing is for certain, all three levels of governments must have money to burn. It is also clear that our elected officials and government department managers aren't providing the level of scrutiny for these trips that the public deserves.

So what's the solution? One obvious approach is to utilize more cost effective and environmentally-friendly methods such as conference calls. Unfortunately, that alternative has been around for years and governments still prefer the more expensive and greenhouse gas emitting face-to-face approach.

Another solution to consider would be first requiring the budget for every discretionary trip to be approved by a vote in the legislature or city council chamber. Then, once the trip is complete, every expense receipt could be scanned and placed on-line for the public to view. Lastly, a full public report would have to be authored by the traveler explaining what they learned and how the activity benefited taxpayers.

Not only would it put more accountability into the process, it would share the information learned with others, and ensure taxpayers know what benefit (if any) they received for their money. Now there's a green idea.

Colin Craig is the Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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