Senate security committee racks up $3 million in travel spending
Tim Naumetz, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA - The Senate committee on national security and defence has spent $3 million since 2001 on annual tours to military bases and cities in Canada, "fact-finding" missions to Washington, D.C., trips to Europe and two visits to Canadian troops in Kandahar.
Records show the committee's study of military and security operations has been the costliest Senate inquiry in 13 years, perhaps since Confederation.
Annual budgets tabled in the Senate show the committee, under chairman Liberal Colin Kenny, has generously entertained politicians abroad and Canadian military at home, with thousands for hospitality.
The hospitality expenditures are on top of thousands spent on working lunches and dinners, per diems for the senators and accompanying staff, and hotel rooms that cost up to $450 a night in Washington.
The committee's latest budget, $617,150 over the next year, includes $158,000 in sole-source contracts for four consultants: a researcher, a military adviser, an intelligence and national security adviser and a communications specialist.
The nine-member committee routinely takes the consultants and several Senate staff along on its trips.
The committee, whose reports routinely receive extensive media coverage, has been quietly gobbling up the biggest share of spending by the 18 Senate committees. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, it consumed a third of the $1.8 million spent by all committees.
It spent $903,966 during the first session of the current Parliament, from April 3, 2006 to September 14, 2007.
In the last Parliament, from Oct. 4, 2004, to Nov. 29, 2005, the committee spent $998,138 for consultations, hearings and trips on its overall mandate to "examine and report on the national security policy of Canada." The committee spent most of the money travelling outside Ottawa, much of that outside Canada.
There were repeat visits to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, trips abroad to London, Rotterdam, Dubai, Kandahar, Kabul, Brussels and two trips each to London and Washington.
One trip to Kandahar became controversial when the senators had to cool their heels in an expensive hotel in Dubai because Canadian brass would not allow them into the field in Afghanistan during operations against Taliban insurgents.
The main purpose of the inquiry, first authorized by the Senate in October 2002, following an "introductory survey" that began in May 2001, is to examine "the capability of the Department of National Defence to defend and protect the interests, people and territory of Canada and its ability to respond to and prevent a national emergency or attack." Its mandate also includes study of the relations between intelligence agencies, emergency preparedness and border security.
The Senate has authorized the same mandate for each new session of Parliament since 2002, following the committee's creation in early 2001 with Kenny as chair.
Expenditures from May 2001 to last September came to $2,900,198, before the committee's latest trip to Afghanistan earlier this month.
After nearly six years, the committee's expenses face scrutiny outside the private confines of the Senate's budget committee.
Conservative Senator David Tkachuk - who replaced Conservative Senator Michael Meighen as the government's vice-chair on the security committee last October - raised concerns last month on the floor of the Senate.
Tkachuk questioned the travel as well as the extra staff and sole-source contracts Kenny acknowledges have been committee practice since the study began.
Tkachuk raised his objections after the Liberal majority on the budget committee approved an initial payout of $165,000 for the latest budget. The Senate also approved the funding after Tkachuk's speech.
The committee plans to spend $108,000 next month on another fact-finding mission to Washington by nine senators and eight staff. Another $61,570 is earmarked for "promotion" for this phase of the study, including $36,000 for promotional travel by one senator, likely Kenny.
The budget proposes visits to military bases and cities in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on a $45,000 charter flight, visits to military bases in Ontario and trips by two senators to conferences in Brussels and Israel.
The plan includes $12,000 for hospitality, $22,400 for "working" lunches and dinners and, on the same trips, a further $24,800 in per diems for senators and staff - $80 each a day on top of the working meals.
Executive class flights for the senators, economy for the staff, and taxis and buses are separate lines in the budget.
Kenny argues "Canadians are getting value for the money they're spending" as he displays, during an interview, meticulously recorded statistics for media coverage, consultations and response by government agencies to the committee's 21 reports over the years.
"They're getting damn good advice on defence issues, on the problems at airports, on the problems in ports, on the problems along our border, and the government picks up our recommendations and adopts them."
Kenny, citing the committee's reports, has pressed for expansion of Canada's military and security forces since the terrorist attacks in the United States and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kenny says the spending on hospitality, meals and travel is necessary for the kind of work the committee does.
"Look at what it's for, for heaven's sakes, this is a trip to Washington, D.C., and if we invited some of our opposite number to come for dinner, OK, it's rolled into the budget. If you think about it, if we want to have a meal with soldiers, we have to pay for it, they won't pay for it."
He says Senate rules allow the sole-source contracts because each of the consultants have worked for the committee from the start and public competitions for the work are impractical because of time constraints.
Kenny claims Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Senate Government Leader Marjory LeBreton replaced Meighen with Tkachuk as the government's vice-chair "to make life difficult for the committee. They want to destroy the Senate, they want to have the Senate abolished or changed or something."
Relations between Kenny and Tkachuk appear to be unusually bitter in the normally collegial atmosphere that prevails in the Senate.
Kenny called Tkachuk a "crock" during the interview about expenses. Tkachuk said in the Senate he does not want to become "infected by the same virus" as the other senators on the committee.
He acknowledged in an interview he has an "agenda" to rein in the committee's spending, but denied Harper gave him marching orders.
"Mr. Harper has never actually talked to me once about Colin Kenny," he said. "Colin Kenny may think that other people think he's important, but in the scheme of things, he's not on Mr. Harper's hit parade."
© The Canadian Press, 2008