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Editorials Globe editorial: When politicians accept ‘free’ trips, democracy pays

First-class trips are fun, particularly when someone else is paying; everyone enjoys travelling in the style to which they've become accustomed.

Like parliamentarians, for example.

Members of Parliament and Senators have long taken overseas junkets, paid for by foreign governments or organizations. Remarkably, these trips are not in violation of the ethical standards for public office-holders, or Canada's political donation rules.

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The problem is not that Canadian politicians are travelling abroad. The problem is that these "free" trips aren't really free. The people footing the bills are doing so to exercise influence on our elected officials, whether overtly or more subtly. Those picking up the tab are at the very least buying the time of MPs and Senators. It's not a good look.

Worse yet, some of these trips are being offered to our politicians by autocratic governments with expansionist global ambitions, like the hard men who run Beijing.

When such travel isn't immediately disclosed, as seems to have been the case with several recent trips to China on the part of government and opposition legislators, it raises suspicions. It should.

Of course MPs and Senators should travel to all sorts of countries, including places governed by people who don't always share our democratic values, such as China. And yes, our politicians should meet with lots of people there, including officials of the ruling Communist party.

But the question of who pays – and who benefits – has to be considered.

The current law is very lax. The guidelines from the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner specify all trips with a value of more than $200 and not "wholly paid from the Consolidated Revenue Fund or by the Member personally, his or her political party or any parliamentary association," must be reported to the Speaker's office "within 60 days."

In other words, our politicians can accept cash from overseas for travel, as long as they disclose it. The reporting requirement has remained essentially unchanged since it was enacted 1986. It's worth asking whether mere disclosure is sufficient.

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Democracy is threatened when wealthy donors can exert undue influence on government, by buying time or favour with politicians. It's why several provinces and the federal government have over the last few years tightened their political donation rules. But foreign travel is a giant influence-peddling loophole. It's a free for all.

For example, federal electoral law includes strict donation limits, and specifies that "no person or entity other than an individual who is a Canadian citizen or is a permanent resident... shall make a contribution to a registered party, a registered association, a nomination contestant, a candidate or a leadership contestant."

Yet a foreign government can legally donate a trip worth umpteen thousands of dollars to a Canadian politician.

Canada's elected officials should have the opportunity to travel widely, across the globe, accumulating as large a breadth of experience as possible. Defending and thoughtfully defining our country's national interest depends on it. But when a foreign government or lobby group is paying, whose interests are served? Not that of Canadians.

That's why our office-holders' trips should be paid for with taxpayer funds. Canada has a $2 trillion economy; we can spare a few extra million dollars to fund official travel. It's a small price to pay for a cleaner democracy.

There are no foolproof methods for thwarting foreign influence over our political process. But removing the ability of Beijing or any other overseas government or organization to buy our politicians' time seems like an obvious place to start.

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Junkets have been a staple of our parliamentary system for decades, whether funded by foreign governments and affiliated cultural organizations, non-governmental actors, international forums, parliamentary associations (where travel is a frequent and favoured perk) or charities.

In many parts of the world, they are basically an extension of public diplomacy. Sometimes, trips are offered as a benign attempt to get a foreign country or issue on Canada's radar. Sometimes, there are murkier motives. But no "free" trip offered a Canadian parliamentarian is entirely free. It is always an attempt to exert influence, and taking it places the Canadian officer-holder in the sponsor's debt.

Canadian politicians should not be beholden to anyone other than their constituents.

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