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DebraW
18-07-2007, 11:44 PM
Alberta's Washington office panned

Wed, July 18, 2007
By JEREMY LOOME, Legislature Bureau

It begs the question, notes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation: If former Energy Minister Murray Smith’s role as Alberta’s Washington face is worth a $1.4-million per year full-time office, then why are so many other reps being sent to the U.S. capitol?

According to one government spokesman, it’s because they can get meetings with U.S. counterparts that Smith can’t. That makes Smith “the highest-paid social convenor in the history of the province,” according to the official opposition.

Over the last two years, Alberta has sent other representatives – usually cabinet ministers – to conferences and meetings in Washington D.C. on at least 10 separate occasions, according to government members’ international travel records.

There are a few conclusions the public can reach, says the Federation’s Scott Hennig. First, Smith is already in Washington to represent Alberta, so sending more representatives is a waste of money.

Second, at just $75,000 total for all 10 trips, it’s a lot cheaper to send ministers to Washington than it is to have an office.

And third? “We still have no idea whether any of those trips were worth it to begin with. It’s one thing to report what you heard at a conference or meeting. But in order to know whether taxpayers are getting value for money, the government has to follow up and show what impact all of these trips have.”

Hennig said his group continues to be disappointed by the lack of public outcry in Alberta for government accountability.

“One of the premiers stated goals is transparency, and giving the public some idea of why we have these overseas offices, why ministers have to travel all over the globe, would be a good start.”

But a spokesman for Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Guy Boutilier said it’s important to realize that many trips are about immeasurable intangibles like “face time” – getting to know counterparts overseas.

“I think it’s often difficult to say that because we went on ‘this trip’ on ‘this date’ that ‘this resulted.’ It’s often about building relationships and opening doors,” said Garnet Lewis.

As for sending other ministers to Washington, Lewis said that’s simply necessary sometimes.

“A lot of the time you’ll find that ministers in other countries and states express the desire to meet directly with their counterpart ,” he said.

“Often times ministers are able to open doors that Murray can’t, or even if he could pave the way, we would still desire the actual meeting be between two elected officials.”

That should make people wonder what they get for their $1.4 million, said the official opposition.

“It’s a complete waste of money is what it is,” said Liberal critic Hugh MacDonald, the MLA for Goldbar.

“How ironic is it that the current premier, Mr. Stelmach, and the former energy minister Murray Smith were in the ‘deep six’ together: the fiscal hawks in cabinet who demanded the closure of these overseas offices. Now, they won’t even tell us what’s he’s going to get for a pension from this job.”

Ministers do have to go to Washington sometimes, said MacDonald, while Smith spends most of his time entertaining. “They have executive assistants to handle the travel and meeting planning for them.

"They don’t need Murray Smith. If Dick Cheney wants a busboy, he should pay for it himself.”

Meanwhile, MacDonald said, the government is sending former cabinet minister Pearl Calahasen on a tour of three Alberta trade offices in Europe but isn’t looking into its office in South Korea, despite its inability to stick within its operating budget.

“So the office that most requires the attention isn’t getting it. And meanwhile, we’re supposed to expect that we’ll get some value for money from Pearl Calahasen jumping around Europe.”

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