B.C.’s New Democrat government is tightening its travel rules for political staff, after a recent trip to Switzerland grew to six people, most of whom used it as a springboard for an international holiday.
Attorney General Niki Sharma defended the purpose of the trip to the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples meeting in Geneva for five days in July, though, pointedly, when asked, not the size of the delegation.
“I know that we were all hard at work doing the work of representing B.C. as a delegation, and there were lots of people there to meet and interact with,” said Sharma.
The trip included Sharma, her chief of staff Derrick Harder, deputy minister of the Declaration Act Secretariat Jessica Wood, special advisor to the premier Doug White, a declaration act secretariat administrative staffer, and a ministerial assistant to Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin.
Sharma said the conference involved a presentation from B.C. on how it implemented UNDRIP into law in 2019, as well as meetings with interested officials from other governments. Conference agendas for July 17-21 make no specific mention of British Columbia, though there was a presentation from a Canadian delegation that presumably included the province.
Rankin himself did not attend. It’s unclear why the government sent a ministerial assistant for a minister who was not present, or why the government needed a third administrative person in addition to two other assistants for a delegation that consisted of only one minister.
The total bill to taxpayers has not yet been processed because officials have yet to file their per diems, expenses and other receipts. However, the base cost of flights and hotels was at least $33,000.
The government did not promote the trip in advance, nor did it post any photos, videos or information that it had even sent a delegation to Geneva.
After being contacted for comment about the trip, Sharma subsequently posted a video online of Wood making an emotional speech at the conference about her personal journey as an Indigenous person and member of the LGBTQTS+ community.
BC United critic Peter Milobar said the trip highlights a premier’s office that has lost control of both public spending of taxpayer dollars and proper oversight of its own political staff late into his mandate.
The optics of an unnecessarily-large trip on the taxpayer dime for staffers who then leveraged it into holidays contrasts sharply with the ongoing affordability crisis experienced by ordinary British Columbians, said Milobar.
“It speaks to a premier’s office that is losing touch with the average person,” he said.
“Most people are cancelling summer holidays because they can’t afford them, or scaling back, and here we have a government that is sending twice as many people as is needed.”
Four of the six people B.C. sent to Geneva stayed after the convention ended and tacked on personal holidays, before catching publicly-paid flights back home.
Government policy permits people to stay after work trips, as long as they pay their own hotel bills and the delayed flight back to B.C. is not more expensive.
“I think we were very diligent about making sure that value for British Columbia is there and we were working,” said Sharma.
“And when we were not, it was not on anybody's else's dime. It was on our own dime. And we all had to come back to very busy lives, so nobody's paid for long extended holidays or anything like that.”
The person who stayed on holiday the longest appears to have been Harder, who spent several days in Switzerland and chronicled his sightseeing on social media. Despite that, the premier’s office argued Harder returned on a flight that was actually cheaper than had he left immediately after work.
Milobar said the large delegation and the number of holidays makes it questionable.
“That’s understandable you’d need a staffer or two, but there definitely seems to be an inverse relation to the desirability of the location of a conference and the number of delegates that want to suddenly go,” he said.
“Six people for one minister to make a presentation at a conference, it does really make you scratch your head, especially when it’s a conference that up until your phone call I didn’t know they’d sent anyone. It’s not something they’ve been highly touting out there.”
The premier’s office approves all out-of-province delegations. In the wake of the Geneva trip, it has warned political staff about the size and optics of future trips, especially as the NDP government reaches its sixth year in power and prepares for next year’s provincial election.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]