Loophole leaves taxpayers picking up tab for MP travel

A loophole in the House of Commons’ spending rules has allowed MPs travelling to party conventions to bill taxpayers for more than half a million dollars over the past year — even though House of Commons rules normally prohibit MPs from charging expenses linked to partisan political activity.

Since May 2023, MPs have charged to the House of Commons $538,314 in travel, accommodation, meals and incidental costs associated with attending caucus meetings held in connection with party conventions — including more than $84,000 for travel by “designated travellers,” often MPs’ spouses.

Expense claims filed to the Senate by seven Conservative senators for travel, accommodation and per diems added another $26,293 to the total.

Conservative MPs racked up 79 per cent of the spending by MPs. They billed the House of Commons $426,283 to attend a caucus meeting associated with the Conservative Party’s policy convention in Quebec City in September 2023, including $331,699 for travel, $71,408 for accommodations and $21,053 for meals and incidentals.

Conservative delegate Patrick Wuori waves a flag.
Conservative delegate Patrick Wuori calls on the crowd prior to party leader Pierre Poilievre’s speech at the Conservative Party Convention on Friday, September 8, 2023 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Conservative MPs were the only ones to bill Parliament for spouses’ travel to a caucus meeting.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre did not file an expense claim to the House of Commons from his MP’s budget for travel to Quebec City.

New Democratic Party MPs collectively filed the second highest total in expenses; they billed Parliament $83,087 to send MPs and a dozen of their employees to a caucus meeting associated with the party’s convention in Hamilton in October 2023.

One of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s employees charged an expense claim to Singh’s House of Commons MP’s budget, but Singh himself did not.

A bearded man, wearing a turban and a dark suit, gestures as he speaks into a microphone.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh addresses the NDP convention in Hamilton, Ont. on October 14, 2023. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

The Bloc Québécois, whose MPs are all located in Quebec, billed the House of Commons $28,943 for travel to a caucus meeting linked to the party’s convention in Drummondville, Que., in May 2023. Leader Yves-François Blanchet was among five Bloc MPs who didn’t file claims for travel to Drummondville.

In a small number of cases, the expense claims filed by MPs from different parties included stops in Ottawa and other cities, or tacked on other activities like language training.

The Liberal Party is the only party recognized in the House whose MPs did not file expenses for attending a caucus meeting connected to a convention in the past year.

Liberal House leader says loophole should be closed

While a handful of Liberal MPs’ staffers billed the House of Commons for travel from the riding to Ottawa at the same time the party was holding its convention in Ottawa, the party did not hold a caucus meeting in connection with the convention. Most MPs were already in Ottawa at the time because the House of Commons sat the week before and after the May convention.

Liberal MPs have billed the House of Commons over the years for travel to caucus meetings outside Ottawa that were not associated with a party convention.

WATCH | Should MPs have to pay back expenses for travel to a party caucus at a convention?

Should MPs have to pay back expenses for travel to a party caucus at a convention?

7 hours ago

Duration 0:53

Liberal House Leader Steve MacKinnon explains why he thinks it is wrong to bill taxpayers for travel to a caucus meeting connected to a political party convention.

Government House leader Steven MacKinnon said the Liberal Party decided in the leadup to its 2014 party convention in Montreal not to take advantage of the clause in the House of Commons spending rules that effectively allows MPs to bill Parliament for travel to party conventions.

“We knew that that loophole existed, that caucuses were fine, conventions not fine and that Liberals wouldn’t play that game of conveniently scheduling a caucus meeting around a party convention,” MacKinnon told CBC News.

“This is a loophole. I would welcome a discussion around tightening or closing that loophole and I hope that that’s what can occur.”

The clause that basically allows MPs to bill the House of Commons for travel to party conventions dates back to November 2011, when the Board of Internal Economy — which oversees the management of the House of Commons and its spending — added a clarification to the rules that govern MPs’ expenses.

Under House of Commons rules, MPs generally cannot charge expenses related to partisan political activity, such as party conventions or fundraising events. MPs who have used House of Commons resources for partisan purposes, such as filming political videos in their Parliament Hill offices, have been fined.

MPs can, however, claim expenses related to national caucus meetings, which are considered part of their parliamentary duties.

If a party holds a national caucus meeting at the same time and place as its party convention, MPs, their employees and designated travellers can charge travel, two nights of accommodation, meals and incidentals to attend the caucus meeting — effectively subsidizing their travel to the convention at the same time.

Conservative Party says its people followed the rules

The Senate prohibits senators from using Senate resources for a variety of political party events, including leadership events, but makes an exception for national conventions. The 13 Conservative Party senators are the only ones in the now largely independent 105-seat Senate who belong to a political party that holds national conventions.

Sebastian Skamski, director of media relations for Poilievre, said Conservative MPs followed the House of Commons rules in Quebec City. He said factors like the size of a party’s caucus and where an MP lives can influence the cost.

“There is an unavoidable difference for an MP that needs to fly from rural Alberta to Quebec City to attend a caucus meeting than an MP that drives from Toronto to London to do the same,” he said.

Skamski said that, unlike the Liberals, the Conservatives have often held their caucus retreats in Ottawa, resulting in no additional costs to taxpayers.

“The Trudeau government is in no position to lecture anyone and pontificate on the subject after expensing over $1.3 million on so-called ‘affordability retreats,’ which resulted in life becoming less affordable for Canadians,” he said.

Skamski said the Liberal Party’s caucus retreat in New Brunswick in 2022 cost taxpayers $428,258, some of it billed to the House of Commons and some expenses for staffers in ministers’ offices and the Prime Minister’s Office billed to those offices. Skamski said the figures include $43,292 in expenses for MPs’ designated travellers.

The New Brunswick caucus meeting was not connected to a party convention.

Skamski said the Conservatives are not aware of any proposal to change the House of Commons expense rules for caucus meetings.

“If one were to be brought forward, we would of course consider it and additionally propose changes that would ban taxpayer funding for luxurious Liberal cabinet retreats outside of those held in government offices in Ottawa,” he said.

Delegates at the NDP Convention in Hamilton, Ont. cast their ballots in a vote to hold a leadership review or not, on Saturday, October 14, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Delegates at the NDP convention in Hamilton, Ont. cast their ballots on whether to hold a leadership review on Saturday, October 14, 2023. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

NDP House leader Peter Julian said holding caucus meetings in other parts of the country is a common practice for political parties.

“We had caucus events in Hamilton so that we could continue to do the planning work needed for the coming weeks,” Julian wrote in an e-mail. “All of the House of Commons travel guidelines were followed and we’ll adhere to any changes to the rules made moving forward.”

Bloc Québécois press secretary Joanie Riopel said the Bloc uses caucus meetings outside Ottawa to learn more about regional issues.

“Bloc Québécois MPs reunite in caucus outside of Ottawa, on the sidelines of conventions and other activities of the same type, and often organize tours to meet local actors and notably to discuss regional realities,” she said. “It all has the goal that elected officials be the [most] efficient possible in their work as spokespeople in the House of Commons.”

MacKinnon, however, was sharply critical of the practice and said it wouldn’t pass a smell test.

“Let’s state the obvious here. They’re not travelling to attend a caucus meeting. They’re travelling to attend a national convention of the party, an intensely partisan event,” he said.

“They get caught red-handed, not only creating some bogus caucus opportunity but also in bringing their spouses and others along with them for the ride and charging it up to taxpayers.”

Political scientist calls on MPs to set ‘example’

MacKinnon, who sits on the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE), said the board should consider closing the loophole and Conservative MPs should consider repaying the House of Commons.

Geneviève Tellier, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, said Parliament makes a distinction between the parliamentary and the political activities of MPs for a reason, but the House of Commons is also free to adopt its own rules.

“The decision is a bit surprising for me because I would have thought that there are maybe other priorities, other needs within Parliament that need funding, but they don’t have the funding to do so,” she said.

Tellier also questioned why Conservative MPs are billing the House of Commons for travel to a party convention, including by designated travellers, when the party’s coffers are well stocked.

“Probably it would be better for them to set the example and say we don’t go that way, we don’t authorize that type of spending,” she said. “They have the money anyway to pay for the travel of people that they want for their convention from the party funds.”


Posted in CBC