Travel has once again proven a bugbear for South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale Conservative MP Russ Hiebert.
Hiebert – who was pilloried in 2010 for having the highest taxpayer-funded travel expenses among MPs – has run into flak from opponents in the House of Commons for being the most frequent user of “sponsored travel” in past years.
But Hiebert – who spent more than six weeks outside Canada in 2014, making five trips, which included stays in Taiwan, Paris and an 18-day tour of Armenia, Iraq, Turkey and Kazakhstan – defends his travel as vital to his work as a member of the International Trade Committee and International Human Rights Committee.
“These are positive opportunities to advance our economic, trade and security interests and promote democratic ideals that Canadians care deeply about,” Hiebert said, responding to Peace Arch News’ questions by email from Ottawa.
Others have questioned the value of Hiebert’s travel, revealed in the annual report of Mary Dawson, Parliament’s conflict-of-interest commissioner. Vancouver Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies was quoted in various media as saying it is “hard to see any long-term payoff for Parliament or Canadians,” for Hiebert’s travel.
Closer to home, Liberal riding association president Ginny Hasselfield said disclosures of Hiebert’s overseas travel record come as no shock, but suggested an MP’s time might be better used addressing important local issues.
“It’s not surprising that Russ has taken some time to travel out of the country this past year, because, basically, he’s given up – he’s not running for election in the riding again,” she said. “We’ve got lots of issues at home that need addressing – among them seniors’ issues, veterans issues and health care issues… Travelling around the world is great – a lot of MPs do it – but we need someone who’ll work on the ground here.”
Asked about criticisms that his wife, Andrea, joined him on some of the trips, Hiebert said that disclosure rules ask only for an “accompanying person” regardless of actual costs incurred by that person.
“It should be noted that I paid for my own and my wife’s airfare on a number of occasions,” he said.
In 2013, Hiebert had six sponsored trips to destinations that included the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as the Ukraine, France, Belgium, India, and Bangladesh. His 2012 record included trips to France, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Washington, D.C.
“I have found these visits to be invaluable opportunities to promote Canada’s Trade Plan, to gather information first hand and to advocate for democracy and human rights reforms in some of the most troubled places in the world,” Hiebert told PAN. “It also provides an opportunity for MPs, in addition to ministers, to reinforce our government’s international message and agenda.
“When Parliament is asked to vote on things like deploying our troops to fight terrorists it helps to know what is going on in (a) region. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. I met with the refugees and saw first-hand the situation on the ground in northern Iraq. It directly informed my decision to call on the Government to increase aid, which it did, and my position on the current debate in Parliament about our military engagement there.”
Hiebert said he also understood the problem of human trafficking better after seeing where it happens and speaking to victims, and that meeting with the European Parliament’s Trade Committee in Belgium helped promote a Canada-EU trade deal worth $500 billion to Canada’s economy – “a very direct benefit for constituents.”
Hiebert said sponsoring organizations were “internationally recognized” groups, like World Vision and Canadem, that promote human rights and democracy, the governments of hosting nations or conferences including political leaders from many nations.
He said he received briefings from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in advance and by Canadian diplomats in the host countries. “They welcome MP participation, as they recognize that I am in a better position to get meetings with senior members of foreign governments and communicate Canada’s message, which helps them do their job.”