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Are Christy Clark's Travel Expenses Soaring Sky-High?

03/03/2016 03:11 EST | Updated 03/04/2017 05:12 EST
Bloomberg via Getty Images
An Air Canada plane descends at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The number of international visitors to Canada plunged 20 per cent since 2000 even as global travel soars, according to a sobering report being released Thursday by Deloitte Canada. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

News that Premier Christy Clark has spent $500,000 on private jets since assuming office has -- not surprisingly -- raised a few eyebrows.

It's a story that has as much to do with the symbolism as it does with the dollars. A political condition that the government seems increasingly tone deaf to as of late.

The story also broke at a particularly bad time.

Tough to defend private jets when you're clawing back transit passes from the disabled at the same time.

The private jets are only part of the total travel bill at the premier's office.

In 2014-15, Clark's office charged an additional $131,742 on 10 regularly scheduled airlines, including $99,222 between Harbour Air and Helijet.

Add the premier's travel expenses all up and they came in at $67,538 for 2014-15 or $1,300 per week.

The premier's counter-spin on all of this basically boils down to: "Well, he spent more than me and him, too," pointing her finger directly at former premiers Gordon Campbell and Glen Clark.

Bit of cherry picking going on, though.

In 2002-03, Campbell billed $77,269 in travel. The next year, Campbell was up to $101,673, and the following year down to $61,939. For 2010-11, his travel came in at $60,598.

Clark billed $75,589 for 2011-12.

Without some outside yardstick to measure travel expenses against, it's a bit of a mug's game to claim one premier spent more than the other.

If Clark's travel costs are indefensible, a former premier's more indefensible costs doesn't make hers defensible.

Fortunately such a yardstick is available.

In 2014-15, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne billed $14,245 in travel and hospitality expenses, including a trade mission to China.

Why the difference?

In Ontario, the premier, cabinet ministers, MPPs and senior bureaucrats don't have the final say on their expenses. That task falls to the province's Integrity Commissioner.

They're also stingy, in a good way. B.C.'s meal per diem for MLAs is $61, in Ontario it's $40.

You won't see a $3.39 can of Pringles showing up on an expense account in Ontario, as it did with the former CEO of Partnerships B.C. who was pulling down $250,000 at the time.

Then there's the tiny matter that Premier Clark rarely travels alone.

She's often accompanied by her press secretary, videographer and occasionally B.C. Liberal party staff, as she criss-crosses the province.

Clark claims she travels with a videographer "to (better) inform the public via social media about events like the climate summit in Paris last fall."

Check out the government's YouTube channel and no one would ever accuse those canned videos of going viral. Most have under 1,000 views.

In July, on one charter flight to Kelowna, Clark was joined by three political staff, Forest Minister Steve Thomson and her bodyguard.

Total cost for the trip was $4,251 or $708 per person. A return airfare can be had for about $250.

A point that's highly relevant when it comes to divvying up the costs.

Do party staff pay their share of the real cost or the equivalent in economy class fares? The same principle would apply to how costs are assigned to Clark's public travel tally.

It's also not uncommon for the premier to squeeze in some party fundraising while she travels, as she did in 2012 at the Calgary Petroleum Club and as she does in Kelowna.

There's no rule that requires the party to contribute to the premier's travel costs in such circumstances, effectively putting B.C. taxpayers in the position of subsidizing B.C. Liberal fundraisers.

The symbiotic relationship doesn't stop there. Many of the same companies that fly the premier on charter flights are also generous donors to the B.C. Liberal party.

Since 2005 Helijet has donated $41,185 to the B.C. Liberals, Blackcomb Aviation ($45,505), Pacific Coastal Airlines ($48,660), London Air Services ($53,052) and Harbour Air ($128,310).

So, how are the travel sweepstakes shaping up so far this year?

For the first nine months of 2015-16, Natural Gas Minister Rich Coleman has top honours at $49,756, closely followed by Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett ($49,629), Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad ($44,880), premier Clark ($44,300) and Finance Minister Mike de Jong ($40,895).

Ontario's finance minister, Charles Sousa, billed $7,745 in 2014-15.

Note: All political donations are sourced from the Elections B.C. database.

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