International travel by Members of Parliament

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Report on The National about international travel by Members of Parliament

I am writing in regard to your complaint and request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a report September 8, 2010, on The National, later redistributed on, on the matter of international travel by Members of Parliament.

Your complaint involved a report by Brian Stewart on international travel by MPs and focused on trips sponsored by non-parliamentary sources, including foreign interests and lobby groups. The report identified a “sharp” growth in such trips in the last five years and explored the ethical issues involved in accepting such travel.

Your complaint expressed particular concern that the report suggested Canadians had not paid for MPs' trips to Israel, in that Stewart said on the broadcast: “Canadians should be paying for their MPs' travel, not foreign interests.” You argued that the report demonstrated bias by including the Israel-bound trips with foreign-sponsored travel between Canada and Taiwan.

You asserted that there was a significant difference in the Israel trips being underwritten by the Canada-Israel Committee, a not-for-profit organization based in Canada and focused on enhancing relations between the two countries. In one of your emails on this file you expressed concern that, in suggesting that Canadians should pay for the trips, the report was implying that the supporters of the Canada-Israel Committee were not Canadians.

Your complaint highlights several issues in the relationship between Members of Parliament and other countries, including the ethical challenge of accepting sponsored travel in the context of available parliamentary funds to travel. The report pointed out that MPs are capable of voting themselves a budget for such trips but choose instead to operate within an unaudited, loosely chronicled system in which their travel (often with their spouses or aides) is paid for by a special interest. It implied such sponsored travel could lead to perceptions that recipients might be beholden.

In my review, I had to examine whether the report violated CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices on issues of accuracy, integrity and fairness. In particular I felt it necessary to focus on the issue of accuracy and the CBC requirement of a “disciplined use of language” in its journalism.

I believe Stewart made clear efforts to substantially differentiate between the foreign- sponsored travel between Canada and such countries as Taiwan and China and the particular practice with Canada-Israel travel. He reported: “Israel itself, however, does not pay . . .MPs are flown over courtesy of the registered lobby group, the Canada-Israel Committee, paid for by Canadian volunteers.”

I believe he could have been clearer in the subsequent on-air discussion with anchor Peter Mansbridge in noting that “Canadians” should pay for the trips. He was, in my view, not suggesting that the Canada-Israel Committee is not Canadian. Rather, in my view, he was using the term “Canadians” to mean the federal government or Parliament — in effect saying that the government or Parliament should be footing the bill.

I acknowledge it could have left an impression that the trips he was discussing were all foreign-sponsored. CBC journalists are encouraged to be more precise in their choice of words to support their intended effect.

But I do not believe that undermined the central point in the story on the ethics of MPs accepting travel sponsored by non-parliamentary sources. That the travel was paid for by a Canadian group instead of a foreign one is of no difference to that issue. Thank you for writing and raising this matter.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman