OTTAWA — Senators have quietly expanded their opportunities to jet around the globe, courtesy of Canadian taxpayers.
A new policy, adopted last May, gives denizens of the upper chamber international travel privileges not enjoyed by their elected counterparts in the House of Commons.
It enabled Liberal Senator Lillian Dyck, for instance, to embark last month on a visit to her late father’s ancestral home in China.
By senators’ own admission, few politicians anywhere in the world are entitled to such a perk.
Details of the policy change are contained in transcripts of meetings of the Senate’s bipartisan internal economy committee, which governs the upper chamber’s operations. The transcripts are posted publicly on the Senate’s website but have gone largely unnoticed until now.
They offer a fascinating — and often surprisingly frank — glimpse of senators’ perception of their entitlements and their awareness of the potential for a public backlash.
For instance, during one meeting in October, Liberal Senator Paul Massicote railed against the fact that some senators habitually fly business class.
“I have personally asked several senators and they have told me that they travel economy when they are paying for the ticket themselves but business class when the taxpayers are paying,” he said.
“I am deeply offended when I think that the tickets are going to cost $7,000 when there are people in coach paying $800 or $700.”
Nevertheless, it was Massicote, along with Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, who recommended the policy change to allow some international travel.
Until recently, senators abided by the same travel rules as MPs.
MPs and senators alike are each allotted 64 travel points a year, each point representing one free round-trip flight. They’re allowed to use up to four points to visit Washington, D.C., but the rest are to be used strictly within Canada.
Senators and MPs are permitted to travel internationally as members of inter-parliamentary associations or parliamentary committees, which are funded out of separate budgets.
But individual flights to international destinations other than Washington have been prohibited.
Until last May, when the Senate’s internal economy committee agreed to broaden the senators’ horizons.
The committee decided each senator may now use their annual four non-Canadian travel points to fly to New York on United Nations-related business, as well as to Washington.
Moreover, they may apply to the committee for approval to travel anywhere else in the world.
The new policy, recommended by Massicote and Ruth after a year’s study, was unanimously approved by Liberals and Conservatives on the committee.
According to the transcript of a May 7 meeting, Massicote told the committee that “as a general rule” international travel is not allowed for MPs, members of provincial legislatures or for politicians in the U.S. or “many other places” around the world.
“It is nearly a flat-out No.”
Nevertheless, given the “somewhat individualistic” role of Canada’s Senate, he and Nancy Ruth were convinced there is “merit and benefit to our country to allow individual senators to pursue certain activities in international travel.”
They concluded trips abroad should be permitted sparingly and only after a senator has convinced the internal economy committee and one of its sub-committees that the proposed trip “has significant merit.” And those who do get permission must table public reports on their travels in the Senate.
“We should acknowledge when we do international travel, we are subject to a lot of criticism, review and media attention. Let us not forget that,” Massicote said.
“In other words, there must be demonstrable value to the country.”
Since May, only two senators — Dyck and Liberal Celine Hervieux-Payette — have so far received permission to travel abroad.
Last month, Dyck tabled her report on her trip to Guangdong province in China. As the daughter of a former resident of the province, she had been invited by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to attend the opening ceremony of an international tourism and culture festival.
According to her report, Dyck met with local officials and participated in the opening of a museum dedicated to the history of Chinese emigres, like her father. She also traced her family roots and visited the village of Xichengli, where her father was born.
“My father’s greatest wish had always been to bring his first-born son from his Chinese family to Canada. He was not able to do that,” Dyck says in her report.
“We were able, however, to bring part of Xichengli back to his gravesite in Swift Current, Sask., and as a Canadian senator and part of his second family I was able to bring honour to his homeland and participate in official functions as a Chinese Canadian dignitary.”
Dyck billed Canadian taxpayers $1,776.53 for her air fare, with the Chinese picking up all other costs.
The relatively modest cost of her flight raised eyebrows at the internal economy committee, where some senators appeared worried it could set a precedent forcing all senators to fly economy even on long trips. According to the transcript of an Oct. 22 meeting, two senators asked that a consistent policy on class of air travel be developed.
Senator Fernand Robichaud, head of the sub-committee that recommended Dyck’s trip be approved, seemed perplexed.
“In this (Dyck) case, it would have meant that we were saying: ’You have not asked for enough money so we will give you more,”’ he pointed out.
Hervieux-Payette has not yet reported on her Oct. 23-25 trip to Freiburg, Germany, where she attended a conference of Atlantik-Brucke, an elite group of politicians and business people dedicated to improving relations between Germany and Canada.
In an interview, Hervieux Payette said she’s been a member of the group for more than 10 years. She said her participation, which cost taxpayers about $5,000, is a natural extension of her work as vice-chair of the Senate’s banking and commerce committee.
Since the organization’s deliberations are confidential, Hervieux-Payette can’t reveal details of what went on. But she said discussion focussed on the NATO mission in Afghanistan, globalization and the emerging economic superpowers — India, Brazil and China.
Senator George Furey, chair of the internal economy committee, said senators are well aware they’re using taxpayers’ money, which is why frank discussions on issues like travel are open to the public — unlike the secretive deliberations of the Commons’ board of internal economy which never reveals anything.
“We like Canadians to know that we’re conscious of those issues and we do talk about them,” Furey said in an interview.
“We take enough criticism as it is, as you well know, so when it comes to these types of issues, the more open we are and the more transparent that we are and the more discussion that we have, the better policies that we end up formulating.”