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Parliamentarians Ignore Blockbuster Paid Travel Revelation

The Globe and Mail broke an important story about Canadian officials accepting sponsored travel from China, but you wouldn’t know that from question period.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 6 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Members of Parliament seemed uninterested in addressing ethical questions about paid travel by foreign governments for Canadian officials as they hurled vitriol at each other over the ethics of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s stock portfolio Monday.

Last week, the Globe and Mail released a lengthy report showing Conservative and Liberal senators and Members of Parliament had taken 36 trips to China sponsored by Beijing or Chinese business groups since 2006.

Two of those who accepted, Tory senator Victor Oh and Ontario Liberal MP Geng Tan, apparently met with officials working for China’s United Front initiative, aimed at building support for Beijing's policies among Chinese communities overseas and influencing the countries in which they live.

The Globe also reported some the trips were not declared by the two as required by the ethics commissioner’s office if an organization sponsors the travel. Tan and Oh said they had paid for the trips themselves and, according to the Globe, Tan initially denied taking one of them.

The story broke as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was preparing for his trip to China to talk trade.

The paper followed up the report with an editorial over the weekend which decried the practice of Canadian members of government accepting free travel, calling it “always an attempt to exert influence.”

But, in a Parliament where parties will often attack each other for the slightest infraction, there was nary a whisper heard about the story Monday morning. There was no mention of the story in question period either, despite how many times ethics were brought up.

Not only was the story not addressed, but Tan asked the partisan softball question of the day, which he used to ask his own party about promoting the “marquee” areas around his riding to Chinese tourists.

“Can the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Small Business and Tourism please update this House on the government’s plan to tap into the Chinese tourism market?” Tan asked.

There were no groans from the rest of Parliament. Opposition members made no jeers about Tan's trips and meeting with China’s officials tasked with managing Chinese diaspora. No calls of “shame” from the back benches.

There was just an answer from the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism Alaina Lockhart.

“We have developed a strategic plan for the fast-growing Chinese market. We are working to enhance tourism marketing in China,” Lockhart said. “We are working with Canadian tourism businesses to become China ready. We are increasing air and visa access, and developing experiences that are in high demand by Chinese visitors.”

The House moved on.

Meanwhile, Oh appears in a photograph on the website for Toronto development company Lemine Investment Group. Another photo of Oh in a group including Lemine head Thomas Liu appears on Toronto-based Shanxi Business Peoples’ Association website.

Liu was one of those present for a private fundraising dinner held in Toronto last year attended by Trudeau.

The ethics commissioner looked into the dinners and did not pursue any further examination under the Conflict of Interest Act.

Dermod Travis, of the independent government watchdog Integrity BC, said it’s not surprising no mention of the report was made in Parliament because it crosses party lines. But that doesn’t mean glossing over it is acceptable, he said.

“All of the opposition parties have participated in something and fear it could be thrown back at them,” Travis said of sponsored travel. “That, quite frankly, is an abdication of their duty.”

It isn't the first time sponsored travel has raised the eyebrows of ethics watchdogs.

In August 2016, The Tyee published an article detailing the criminal accusations levied against a number of members of a Taiwan-based organization that paid for more travel for Canadian politicians than any other organization.

The complete list of sponsored travel for 2016 shows government officials still accepted junkets from the Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association after The Tyee’s story.

Travis said such junkets paid for by foreign governments carry dangers, such as government members being caught in compromising positions and blackmailed.

But even without such underhanded tactics potentially used by a foreign government, Travis said, it’s obvious such trips are only offered because something is wanted from an elected official.

“No member of Parliament or the Legislature should put themselves in the position where they are accepting free gifts whether it’s dinner for two, whether it’s travel to a foreign country without full and complete disclosure,” Travis said.

“So that the public can be satisfied that this gift did not influence decision making at a later point or that it did.”  [Tyee]

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