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Disney to Doha: MPs lap up free trips courtesy of lobby groups, foreign governments Add to ...

The only thing better than going to the happiest place on Earth is going there for free.

Public records show that's just what Jack Layton and Olivia Chow did last summer. The New Democrat power couple stayed at a Disney World resort, where Mickey and Minnie Mouse mingle with guests, courtesy of a big labour union.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union flew Layton, Chow and NDP MP Glenn Thibeault to Orlando, Fla., to speak at its annual convention in August. A few months earlier, Mr. Layton had written to the head of Loblaws urging him not to close a grocery store in Sudbury, Ont. It was a cause the union had taken up.

From Disney to Doha, MPs are lapping up free travel courtesy of foreign governments, advocacy groups and business organizations.

An analysis by The Canadian Press of sponsored travel reports shows 172 MPs have taken 336 free trips over the last four years totalling $1.9-million. And that's on top of trips taken on government business.

MPs have 60 days to declare sponsored trip that costs more than $500 and isn't paid from their own pocket or with government money.

A database of freebie trips was compiled using information from the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner's office, which covers the period from mid-2006 to the end of December.

Two destinations topped the list: Taiwan and Israel, each with 68 sponsored trips.

The Taiwan trips were paid for by the Chinese International Economic Co-operation Association, a business and trade lobby organization.

The Canada-Israel Committee paid for the Israel trips. The group is active on Parliament Hill. Public filings with the lobbyist registry show 122 entries under the Canada-Israel Committee's name. Many of those meetings were with MPs who went on the group's junkets.

Liberals took the most free trips with 141 compared to 132 by Conservatives, 36 by New Democrats, 25 by the Bloc Quebecois, and two by former Independent MP Bill Casey.

The most frequent flyer was Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis. The Toronto-area MP took 16 trips to Bangladesh, Egypt, Cyprus, Belgium, France, China, Iraq, Greece, India, the United States, Haiti and Nigeria. The total cost of his trips was $71,950.

"Hey, listen, I've been the most-travelled individual since I was elected," Mr. Karygiannis said.

He scoffed at the idea there's anything wrong with accepting free trips.

"Nothing unethical, as long as you report it and ... as long as you're able to answer what you did any why you did it. ... You can't represent your constituents effectively and with knowledge unless you know where they come from and what the problems are in the part of the world they live in."

The priciest single trip was taken by Liberal MP John McCallum. A 10-day "trade mission" to China last September with his wife, Nancy, cost the International Asian Interactive Association $28,741.

Mr. McCallum blames a reporting error for the high cost. He said his office mistakenly put him and his wife down for business-class tickets when they actually flew economy. He said the mistake is being fixed.

"That will make a for a radical reduction in the cost. But other than that, I don't apologize. We don't have any foreign travel budget in Ottawa. This does not cost taxpayers anything."

Mr. McCallum disagreed with the notion that interest groups use the free trips to buy influence with MPs.

"I think it's entirely legitimate," he said.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said if MPs want to go abroad, there should be a travel fund each party can apply to, which would then be scrutinized by the auditor general.

"Defend it all in the public, and if it's really justifiable, the public's not going have any problem with you going abroad sometimes to do some research," Mr. Conacher said.

"But if it's junkets, they will have a problem and the fund will have to be very small. But instead, they maintain this blatantly unethical system of allowing lobby groups and interest groups to buy influence using this gift."

NDP spokeswoman Kathleen Monk said Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow weren't available for interviews. She defended their Florida trip.

"As a leading political figure in Canada, Layton was invited to speak to this union's international annual convention," she wrote in an email.

"It's pretty standard, if you're invited to speak, they cover your travel expenses. These trips followed the rules and were handled and reported appropriately."

Ms. Monk also said there was nothing untoward about Mr. Layton lobbying Loblaws on the retail union's behalf: "Mr. Layton worked with Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault and the union to protect jobs in the region and urged Mr. Weston not to close a grocery store in Sudbury."

The union shelled out $1,158 apiece for Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow's Air Canada tickets. The NDP chief's one-night stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort cost $290. The union paid another $145 to put up Ms. Chow for the night in a separate hotel room.

The union's Fall 2010 newsletter says Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow talked about "the anti-worker, anti-union administration of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and how the NDP is fighting to take back Canada for working families."

For his trouble, Mr. Layton also got a game of Scrabble. Records show he later gave away the $50 board game.

The union paid roughly $2,100 on airfare and accommodation for Mr. Thibeault, who got there a day earlier and stayed three days longer than Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow.

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