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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill on March 2, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill on March 2, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Taxpayers to pay for private citizens going to Mideast with PM Add to ...

Taxpayers will pay for the travel and hotel costs of private participants joining Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to the Middle East, in one of the largest Canadian delegations mounted for a foreign visit.

Mr. Harper flies out Saturday on a trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, on an airplane laden with a delegation that, all told, is expected to number between 150 and 200.

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It includes not only government figures – six cabinet ministers, MPs, political staff and diplomats – but also private participants invited by the Prime Minister’s Office, such as business people and representatives of Jewish community groups and other non-governmental organizations.

About 30 of those business and community representatives will travel on Mr. Harper’s Airbus on the government tab. Many more will pay their own way to fly commercially. The government will pay the hotel bills of all those invited, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Typically, when people are invited to fly with the Prime Minister on a trip like this as a part of a delegation, the government of Canada will cover the costs of their travel,” Jason MacDonald, the Prime Minister’s communications director, said at a press briefing. “It is a significant delegation. This is an important trip, and it’s one that’s generated a lot of interest.”

The Prime Minister’s Office hasn’t yet released a list of who will be in the delegation, or on the plane. Mr. MacDonald said that information would be released Saturday. He said he didn’t have a total number, either, but 200 is “probably high.”

No estimate of the cost was provided. News organizations have been told to expect a cost of $8,000 for each journalist, to cover accommodations, ground transportation, media facilities in Jerusalem and Amman, and the flight on Mr. Harper’s plane.

He said the government also paid for private participants in other large prime ministerial delegations, on visits to China and India.

But it’s clearly Mr. Harper’s first trip to Israel, over four days, that has led to the burgeoning invite list, and perhaps the largest-ever delegation for a bilateral visit.

The list, according to some invitees, includes representatives from national organizations such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith, but also smaller groups such as the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial Mr. Harper will visit, and Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University, where Mr. Harper will receive an honorary degree.

The 30 who will travel on Mr. Harper’s plane are only a portion of the private participants in the delegation.

“I know many who are going, but I don’t know anybody who’s going on the Prime Minister’s plane,” said Stephen Adler, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University. “It seems to be a trip which really has galvanized the Jewish community.”

His organization is excited because Mr. Harper will receive an honorary degree from the university, and Mr. Adler, as well as a group of board members and donors, will fly commercially, paying their own airfare, he said. Some will stay with relatives or friends, he said.

The big delegation on this trip, and the government’s willingness to pick up the tab, is a concern if “who you know in government allows you to get on the plane,” said the NDP foreign affairs critic.

“The question is, what is the process for this?” Paul Dewar said. “Presumably a lot of people wanted to go.”

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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