An overwhelming majority of Canadians are opposed to MPs and senators accepting free travel paid by foreign governments, businesses or lobby groups, a new poll shows.
The survey by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail also found a strong majority of Canadians find it unacceptable for federal parliamentarians to be directly involved in running businesses outside of their public duties.
Travel records kept by the Senate and House of Commons show MPs and senators have accepted more than 1,000 trips since 2007 from outside groups.
The sponsors range from airlines and mining companies to countries such as Taiwan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Other major sponsors are the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – a Canadian-based advocacy group – and the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs – one of Beijing’s agencies that regularly fund trips of foreign politicians.
There are no laws banning Canadian lawmakers from accepting such junkets but the practice is frowned upon by most Canadians, according to a Dec 27-29 survey of 1,000 Canadians conducted for The Globe.
The Nanos poll found that 89 per cent of Canadians say it is unacceptable or somewhat unacceptable for parliamentarians to accept free trips paid for by outside groups such as foreign governments, businesses and lobby groups.
“For average Canadians a free trip is a red flag that they believe is outright unacceptable,” said pollster Nik Nanos, who noted Canadians are concerned that there might be a quid pro quo in taking a free trip from an outside group or foreign state. “It creates a fairly high level of unacceptability.”
Taiwan and Israel are the most travelled-to destinations for Canadian politicians followed by China, which has ramped up its efforts in recent years as part of a “soft power” campaign to amass global influence.
Since 2007, travel records show parliamentarians have taken 36 trips to China, sponsored by arms of the Chinese government or Beijing-friendly business groups seeking closer ties and trade with the one-party state and world’s second-biggest economy.
Unlike Israel and Tawian, China has also been accused of spying, stealing Canadian technology and using coercion to silence critics of the regime on university campuses and elsewhere.
Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who served in Beijing, said China identifies “Canadian policy-makers likely to be able to be manipulated by benefits including luxury travel and business opportunities to support the interests of China in Canada.”
Richard Fadden, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service director, who also served as national security adviser under Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, has expressed concerns about Canadian politicians accepting free trips to countries such as China, especially if they are not part of officially sanctioned parliamentary activities.
Mr. Fadden has told The Globe that “no parliamentarian should get too cozy with the representatives of a foreign state.”
Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, was one of the biggest users of China-sponsored travel between 2008 and 2015 when he was a backbench MP. He took trips valued at $73,300 from China or pro-Beijing business groups.
Rookie Liberal MP Geng Tan and Ontario Conservative Senator Victor Oh are also frequent travellers to China and have taken junkets sponsored by the Chinese government and pro-Beijing business groups. They have met agents of China’s United Front Works Department, which has a mandate to promote Chinese influence globally.
In several instances, their trips to China were not declared to Parliament’s ethics officers. When The Globe raised the matter, both men explained that was because they had paid the expenses for these visits out of their own pockets.
The Senate ethics watchdog is investigating an all-expenses-paid trip to China by Mr. Oh and Conservative senators Don Plett and Leo Housakos and their spouses to determine whether it should have been declared as a gift or sponsored travel.
Chinese media reported the three senators travelled to China in April, 2017, at the invitation of a Beijing-based wealth management firm that recently opened up an office in Vancouver.
The two-week trip to Beijing and Fujian province was not disclosed to the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer as either sponsored travel or a gift. Mr. Housakos gave conflicting accounts of who paid for the trip.
But Mr. Oh later told The Globe and the Senate Ethics Officer that he did not believe the senators had to declare the trip because his “family” picked up the tab for airline tickets, hotels, meals and transportation.
Canadians are also troubled by federal politicians who are involved in business activities outside their parliamentary duties.
The Nanos survey found that 79 per cent of Canadians found it unacceptable or somewhat unacceptable for MPs and senators to be directly involved running businesses outside of their parliamentary duties.
The survey of 1,000 Canadians is accurate 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
“Many Canadians probably feel that politicians are very well-paid so, if you are very well-paid, there is the assumption that you are working full-time for the people of Canada,” Mr. Nanos said. “To be directly involving in running a business outside your parliamentary duties is just not seen as being acceptable.”
The Globe recently reported that Mr. Oh and Conservative senator David Wells set up a consulting business with partners who are involved in attracting investment from China to Newfoundland.
Mr. Oh, who recently said he has not conducted any “personal business” in Canada or China since his appointment to the Red Chamber, formed a St. John’s-based company in April with Mr. Wells.
Mr. Wells would not say whether Signal Hill Management is conducting business with China but he said in an e-mail that he disclosed the company to the Senate Ethics Officer. Mr. Oh’s office said he has since resigned as a director.
The two senators’ business partners in Signal Hill Management are Frank Xiaofeng Huang, who once worked for the China Development Bank, and Jack Jun Tan. Little is known about Mr. Tan.
ROBERT FIFE AND STEVEN CHASE
The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2018