John Baird is defending his New Year's holidays at Canadian official residences abroad, arguing they were a favour from friends, rather than a perk.
The Foreign Affairs Minister took a group of four friends to New York for five days for New Year's 2012, staying at the official residence of Canada's consul-general. It was eight days in London for the arrival of 2013, with six friends, at the residence of Canada's High Commissioner.
The opposition said Mr. Baird was freeloading from the public – but Mr. Baird's office says the minister was only taking favours from friends, and it "did not cost taxpayers a dime."
Canada's High Commissioner to London, Gordon Campbell, invited Mr. Baird to borrow his place while he was away, as did New York Consul-General John Prato, according to Mr. Baird's spokesman, Joseph Lavoie. Both are personal friends of the minister, he said.
But Mr. Baird is also the diplomats' boss, and the official residences are part of his portfolio – and NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the minister shouldn't be taking his vacations in government digs. At best, he said, he was "abusing his relationship with the high commissioner to get a freebie."
"It smacks of entitlement," Mr. Dewar said.
"For him to have his vacation at an official residence of the government of Canada without paying one red cent is entirely inappropriate, and to bring along six of your friends complicates matters more."
Both residences are in upscale locations where hotels are pricey, and Mr. Dewar said Mr. Baird should reveal the names of his guests to show they are not political donors, for example, and reimburse the cost for a comparable hotel in the neighborhood.
Mr. Baird's two trips – to New York from Dec. 28 2011 to Jan 2, 2012, and to London from Dec. 26, 2012 to Jan. 2, 2013 – were the only two occasions he stayed at official residence during personal travel, according to his aides. They say he paid for his own flights, taxis, and other costs, and no staff were present in the residences.
And they argue that the diplomats pay rent for the residences, so they can choose to have guests stay. That "rent-share" is based upon the diplomat's salary and the cost of lodgings in Ottawa – and it doesn't cover the full cost of their residence in expensive cities like London and New York.
Raymond Chrétien, the former ambassador to Washington and Paris, stepped forward to defend the lending of the residence, saying he had friends and family visit him many times in official residences over the years, and sometimes had to leave for a few days while they stayed. "In terms of the principle of our ambassadors abroad allowing their friends to stay in their apartment, when they pay rent, it gives them the right to loan their apartment to friends," he said.
Mr. Dewar said it's worth questioning whether it's okay for ambassadors to lend out their official residences to friends, and groups of their friends' friends. Mr. Dewar said that Mr. Campbell should be asked, "Is this the way in which you use the residence?" But Mr. Dewar added that it's certainly different when their friend is also their boss.