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Tyee's Air Christy Scoop Takes off

For years FOI warrior Bob Mackin spotlighted premier's chartered flights, now earning big media headlines.

Sarah Berman 1 Mar 2016TheTyee.ca

Sarah Berman is managing editor of The Tyee.

An original Tyee story on the premier's chartered jet travel is taking off on CBC, Global BC, CTV, The Globe and Mail and other news sites this week.

Freelance reporter Bob Mackin has kept a close eye on B.C. Premier Christy Clark's taxpayer-funded chartered flights since December 2011. Through dogged freedom-of-information requests, he's spotlighted Clark's private jet expenses as they climbed from $97,500 in 2011 up to half a million dollars as of Nov. 20, 2015.

"I was inspired by a few reporters in the U.S. who keep track of Air Force One," Mackin said of the resulting Air Christy stories. "Other outlets should be doing more of this."

Mackin wasn't happy with the travel disclosures on B.C.'s Open Information site, which only include the total of each minister's combined travel fees. On the latest request, filed in late November, it took months of pressure and repeated requests to waive fees for Mackin to get his hands on the more detailed documents, he said.

Mackin's latest Air Christy report revealed details of many same-day round-trips from Vancouver to Kelowna and back, including two consecutive day trips for photo-ops with firefighters last summer. He found that more than $65,000 was spent on those round-trip flights since Clark became the Westside-Kelowna MLA in a July 2013 byelection.

The story came on the heels of a provincial budget that delivered a small rate increase for British Columbians on disability assistance, while cancelling subsidized bus passes for some people with disabilities. In a number of follow-up reports, observers and NDP Opposition members blasted the "bad optics" of a jet-setting premier.

"It really is quite unbelievable that at the same time the government is clawing back bus passes from people with disabilities, the priority of the premier is to get back to her riding using a private jet," NDP Opposition house leader Mike Farnworth told The Globe and Mail Sunday. Another Global BC story compared the premier to the rich and famous.

NDP leader John Horgan echoed those charges in the B.C. legislature yesterday. "Instead of using WestJet, the premier spent $500,000 on private jets," he began. "So my question to the minister of social development is: can she explain to people in this house and more importantly to people on disability assistance why it's okay for the premier to find the highest price option, and it's okay for you and your government to take away the most basic of options for transportation for people with disabilities?"

Clark's office defended the expenses in a statement: "The premier is required to travel throughout B.C. and commercial flights are booked when available and efficient to do so," wrote executive director of communications Ben Chin. "The premier's monthly travel costs are posted publicly and have remained consistent over her time in office."

'It should be proactive disclosure': watchdog

Mackin is the province's most prolific freedom-of-information investigator. Late last year, the province singled Mackin out for making 1,913 requests for government disclosures between January 2009 and August 2014, costing taxpayers $3.85 million.

But following Mackin's latest Air Christy instalment, government spending watchdogs and other reporters jumped to the FOI warrior's defence.

"It's ridiculous that Bob had to file an FOI to get it," Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, told The Globe and Mail. "It should be proactive disclosure."

Needless to say, Mackin agrees: "Alberta publishes line-by-line expenses for their politicians with PDFs of the receipts. If Alberta can do it, why can't B.C.?" he wondered.

Absent that disclosure, the freedom of information process is necessary to expose or prevent cronyism and corruption and to break through the wall of government spin, Mackin added.

"Governments needs to realize that secrecy breeds suspicion, but transparency will build trust and confidence," he said.  [Tyee]

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