28 December 2008

Freedom From Information: who paid for the junket?

The Premier and natural resources minister took a trip to Qatar and London, England last June.

They held meetings in London with an international energy consultant before heading off to Qatar for a graduation ceremony at the College of the North Atlantic’s campus there. 

While in the Middle East, they also shilled for a failing refinery project:

“Part of what we are doing over here,” natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale told The Telegram, “ is looking for new investments and we'll be promoting the refinery in terms of attracting a partner, so hopefully this project's going to continue”.

They held meetings the very same day the refinery proponents sought bankruptcy protection.

The Qatar portion of the trip lasted three days. The news release still carries the browser banner for Sport Newfoundland and Labrador six months after the event.

So how much did the trip cost the taxpayers?  Not as much as you might expect.

According to the claims reports released December 22 by the provincial government, natural resources minister Kathy Dunderdale got all the way to Qatar via London and back for a mere $17.70 in travel costs.  She billed $1,106.34 in accommodations and $327.02 in meals.

The Premier must have used the same magic carpet, since the transportation cost for his portion of the junket was a mere $210.02.  He must have travelled in the first class portion of the carpet. His accommodations cost $1,129.66 and his meal charges were $148.45.

Now without even knowing for sure, it’s a safe bet that two adults can’t get all the way from St. John’s to the Middle East and back for less than 300 bucks, as these claims would suggest.

And lest you think something is moved around in the claims and the travel bill is buried in the room charges, consider that Qatari hotel rooms don’t appear to come so cheap that a few nights in Doha and maybe one in London would come in at around $1,200 bucks unless one was living extremely frugally.

Now maybe the minister and the premier were guests of the College of the North Atlantic and had access to some sort of VIP guest suites in Doha.  Maybe they were the guests of the local government. Still, even with that, the travel costs should be higher if the provincial government picked up the portion that involved the meetings in London.

Clearly, the actual costs of the trip and the expense claims don’t add up; and if the minister and premier had their bills paid by a third party, the public has a right to know who footed the bill.

So how much did this junket really cost and who paid for it?