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Flying below the radar

By Clarence Rambharat

In the first eight months of 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper incurred just under US$4,000 in travel expenses, including US$1,100 for his wife's travel to Washington DC for the G-8 Summit. Anyone with Internet access can read this information. As we approach the first anniversary of our Prime Minister's two-week trip to India at the start of 2012, we still do not know the expenses incurred on that trip. Unless the law requires full disclosure, the country's treasury can easily become a private political ATM.

Historically, the details of foreign travel and related expenses by our Government ministers are unknowable. The expenses incurred by the largest Cabinet in the country's history are unknowable. And, the growing trend is for ministers to travel abroad, without public disclosure of the nature of their business, the period of absence, the acting arrangements, and the cost to taxpayers, if any. A lot of information is remaining secret.

For example, a story appeared online recently regarding a trip to Europe by the country's Minister of Sport. There is no mention of this trip on the Ministry's website, no Minister's itinerary available, no information on the nature of the trip and whether the trip involves coaching national swimmer George Bovell. The Minister's continuing role as the swimmer's coach was raised in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, and many lauded the work. But as usual most focused on the emotional aspect of the issue and ignored the governance implications. There was no serious deliberation on whether the work constituted pure private work with no cost being borne by taxpayers; whether the work was entirely a taxpayers' expense; or whether the work was a blend of private activity and public expense.

When ministers travel abroad, it raises the question whether the country should be privy to the details of the travel on private and public business, and the details of any cost to taxpayers. The answer must be yes, simply because it would be inconceivable that a minister can travel abroad and not incur expenses which taxpayers bear. At a minimum there will be roaming charges for their State-provided phones.

From the Canadian point of view, the principle which guides PM Harper and other elected officials is that, "Ministers must be able to differentiate between expenses for activities related to the conduct of their portfolio and other official government business and expenses incurred as members of parliament and members of a political party." That principle, legislation and the requirement for public disclosure, ensures that various watchdog groups can plough through the details and publicly challenge the expenses disclosed by elected officials and those working with these officials. And, in many cases, elected and non-elected officials who run afoul of the policies are required to reimburse the treasury.

Sometimes the consequences can be more than mere reimbursement. In April 2012 Canada's minister of international cooperation Bev Oda apologised in parliament for upgrading to the upscale Savoy hotel during a London trip, doubling the original taxpayers' cost. It was one in a long string of expense scandals involving the minister which included billing taxpayers US$250 for a fine she paid for smoking in a US hotel room; hiring a luxury car and driver at $1,000 a day to shuttle her around London during an official trip; and charging taxpayers for a US$16 glass of orange juice served in her hotel room. By July 2012 Oda was out of Harper's cabinet.

In the People's Partnership Government, the closest we have come to that level of accountability is the revelation of credit card expenses by one minister; the revelation that a minister caused taxpayers to fund three cellphones; and the widely reported issue of the spending on the Prime Minister's sister.

But these revelations have been just that. They have been the work of journalists and their sources. This information does not enter the public domain willingly. It is leaked, coerced or discovered, and there is no other way for it to be unearthed.

At best, the current responsibility for overseeing the separation of public and private expenses by public officials lies with the Integrity Commission, the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) and the Auditor General. There is no oversight by Parliament and no evidence of oversight by the Prime Minister. But the reality is that ministers do not have to declare that level of detail to the Integrity Commission, and the Integrity Commission does not have the resources to dig for that information.

In previous articles I examined the very limited roles of the SRC and Auditor General. In relation to the SRC I made the point that the Commission was powerless to deal with the fact that through conflicts of interest State-owned enterprises play a pivotal role in expanding the benefits prescribed by the SRC for ministers and other public officials.

In his recent judgment in which he declared the seat of Toronto's mayor vacant, Ontario Supreme Court judge Hackland made this point about conflicts of interest: "It seeks to uphold a fundamental premise of our governmental regime. This is not about acting dishonestly or for personal gain; it concerns transparency and the certainty that decisions are made by people who will not be influenced by any personal pecuniary interest in the matter at hand. It invokes the issue of whether we can be confident in the actions and decisions of those we elect to govern. The suggestion of a conflict runs to the core of the process of governmental decision-making. It challenges the integrity of the process."

Unfortunately, we cannot deal with conflicts of interest and the use of public office for private gain if we do not understand the extent of the problem and the ongoing cost to taxpayers. And for now, we simply have no way of knowing.

* Clarance Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer.

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