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NDP MP rarely on Parliament Hill billed taxpayers for travel with family over Christmas

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NDP MP rarely on Parliament Hill billed taxpayers for travel with family over Christmas

An NDP MP who frequently joins parliamentary proceedings remotely from her riding billed the House of Commons for a trip she took to reportedly meet with “stakeholders” over the Christmas holidays in Quebec — travel that included bringing her husband and kids along at taxpayers’ expense.

Parliamentary travel records indicate NDP MP Niki Ashton was only in Ottawa on one occasion for four days during the fall 2022 sitting.

But on Dec. 21 of that year, Ashton flew from Thompson, Man. to Ottawa — five days after the House of Commons had already risen for its Christmas break.

Ashton’s partner Bruce Moncur, a former NDP nomination candidate, and their two children also made the trip with the MP to the nation’s capital.

Then, on Christmas Day, 2022, the family of four travelled to Quebec City. Ashton billed the Commons for some of the expenses they incurred along the way.

Social media posts show Moncur and the children took in some of Quebec City’s winter attractions, including an ice slide and snow tubing at Village Vacances Valcartier outside the city centre.

Ashton is also seen in those posts skating with her children and visiting the city’s German Christmas Market.

In an Instagram post, Ashton thanked “progressive activists” for sharing their “inspiring work.”

The trip cost taxpayers $17,641.12, including $13,619.90 for airfare and other transportation, $2,508.39 for accommodations and $1,512.83 for meals and other incidentals, according to Commons records.

Ashton justified billing taxpayers for the trip by claiming she was going to the provincial capital to “attend meetings with stakeholders about business of the House” over the holidays, according to House of Commons travel records.

Ashton’s office referred inquiries about the travel to a party spokesperson.

Reached by phone Wednesday, an NDP spokesperson said Ashton was in Quebec City “to discuss language priorities” because she’s the party’s critic for official languages and needed to “find out things she needs to prioritize.”

Ashton also “met with a union person,” the spokesperson said.

On Dec. 30, 2022, Ashton, Moncur and their children then travelled to Montreal. Ashton again cited “meetings with stakeholders” as the reason for claiming expenses.

The NDP spokesperson said Ashton was again engaging with people about “linguistic issues” while in the province’s biggest city.

The family returned to Ottawa on New Year’s Eve before flying home to Thompson early in the new year.

NDP MP Niki Ashton justified billing taxpayers for a Christmastime trip to Quebec by claiming she was going to Quebec's capital to "attend meetings with stakeholders about business of the House" over the holidays
NDP MP Niki Ashton justified billing taxpayers for a Christmas season trip to Quebec by claiming she was going to the provincial capital to “attend meetings with stakeholders about business of the House” over the holidays (Niki Ashton/Instagram)

The NDP spokesperson said Ashton “paid out of pocket” for some additional expenses incurred on statutory holidays like Christmas Day.

The spokesperson added that some of the trip expenses were related to the family staying in at a hotel while in Ottawa — and not at her second residence in the city — because her apartment was being treated for bed bugs.

The spokesperson said Ashton is in Ottawa less often than some of her colleagues because she’s the mother of two young children and participating virtually — which is permissible under the rules — is a better fit for her schedule.

In a media statement sent to CBC News, Alana Cahill, the party’s director of communications, said Ashton is “a strong representative for the people of northern Manitoba” who “sometimes travels to other parts of the country in order to meet with experts and advocates on the infrastructure challenges facing northern, rural communities and for work related to her critic portfolios.”

“House of Commons rules allow members of Parliament to travel for parliamentary business. Niki followed all the rules and the House of Commons approved her travel expenses,” Cahill added.

‘It smells really fishy’ – CTF director

Franco Terrazzano is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a group that advocates for lower taxes and more accountable government. He said Ashton’s travel “looks really bad and it smells really fishy.”

“If Ashton doesn’t want Canadians to think that she billed taxpayers so she could take a vacation to Quebec over the holidays, then she better have a very good explanation, a very concrete explanation as to what value, if any, taxpayers actually got from this trip,” Terrazzano told CBC News.

He said “ordinary Canadians” are struggling with the cost of living and they get frustrated seeing MPs charge for substantial travel expenses.

“Did taxpayers get more than $17,000 in value out of this trip? Maybe she could have saved taxpayers a whole bunch of money by picking up the phone instead — especially if Ashton is already Zooming into the parliamentary procedures,” he said.

Terrazzano said there needs to be greater oversight of MP travel expenses and he’s calling for some sort of “review” of what’s allowable under the rules to prevent abuse.

Nearly $10,000 for a trip to Windsor

On another trip in May 2023, Ashton travelled — again with Moncur and her kids — to Windsor, Ont. where Moncur grew up and went to school and university.

The six-day trip to Windsor happened as Ashton was travelling infrequently to Ottawa for parliamentary proceedings.

Travel records suggest she was physically in the nation’s capital for fewer than 30 days — including some weekends — over the first six months of 2023.

The Commons sat for 70 weekdays over the same time period.

Unlike senators, MPs can participate in debate and committee meetings virtually under pandemic-era rules that were made permanent in 2023.

The Windsor trip cost taxpayers $9,748.03 — all of it for airfare. Ashton did not charge for any accommodations or incidentals.

NDP MP Niki Ashton addresses the media at a national caucus strategy session on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 in Saskatoon. Ashton is refusing to categorically state whether she wants Tom Mulcair to stay on as party leader.
NDP MP Niki Ashton addresses the media at a national caucus strategy session on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 in Saskatoon. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Ashton flew there to “attend meetings about constituency issues,” according to the Commons travel records.

The NDP spokesperson said Ashton was in Windsor to meet with people associated with a “soccer recreation centre,” to learn about “federal funding to create some soccer opportunities in northern Manitoba for Indigenous folks.”

Ashton has in the past encouraged the federal government and FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to invest more money so that more Indigenous youth can play the game.

While in Windsor, Ashton also travelled across the border to Detroit to meet with Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Talib, the NDP spokesperson said.

Rules allow MPs to take family on some official trips

The Commons’ travel system allocates a certain number of points to an MP each year for travel.

But each trip must have “a specific purpose of travel and be for the purpose of the fulfilment of the Member’s parliamentary functions,” the Commons rules say.

The rules loosely define “parliamentary functions” as activities “relating to the proceedings and work of the House of Commons and activities undertaken in representing his or her constituency or constituents.”

The rules do stipulate that “parliamentary functions” do not include “activities related to the private interests of a member or a member’s immediate family.”

The points can be used by a member to travel between Ottawa and their constituency, for travel within their constituency and for travel from Ottawa or the constituency to their provincial or territorial capital.

Some of the points can also be used for what the Commons calls “special trips” — other trips within Canada.

An MP can allocate some of their points to cover the travel costs of a “designated traveller” chosen by them — typically a spouse. An MP’s dependents are also eligible to have some of their travel covered.

The rules stipulate that designated travellers and dependents can use points to “reunite” with an MP at their Ottawa residence or “at another location where the member is carrying out parliamentary functions.”

Under the rules, MPs, designated travellers and dependents can travel in business class if the flight is more than two hours long.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Grottaglie, Italy on Wednesday, June 12, to attend the G7 Summit. Trudeau has been roundly criticized for his use of taxpayers' funds for personal travel.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Grottaglie, Italy on Wednesday, June 12 to attend the G7 Summit. Trudeau has been roundly criticized for his use of taxpayers’ funds for personal travel. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Terrazzano said MPs should think “about what their constituents would say” before taking big-ticket trips. He also said the Commons should consider tightening the rules on when MPs can be accompanied by their families on subsidized trips.

Last month, CBC News reported on a loophole in the rules that allows MPs and senators to charge Parliament for travel to party conventions.

Under the Commons rules, MPs can claim expenses related to national caucus meetings, which are considered part of their parliamentary duties.

Conservative MPs billed the House of Commons $426,283 to attend a caucus meeting associated with the 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.

NDP MPs also 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, according to a CBC News review of travel claims.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau routinely faces criticism over his travel.

Trudeau’s 10-day vacation with his family at Prospect Estate near Ocho Rios in Jamaica cost taxpayers $230,442. Most of that was for security-related costs, which MPs don’t have.

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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