The saga of Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien's travel expenses is in the local media for the third straight day.
O'Brien, who represents the Gander District in the House of Assembly, has come under scrutiny for his inter-provincial travel. Revelations about his "departmental" travel came to the fore when he was answering questions during the estimate process. CBC offered several reports on Tuesday and Wednesday. O'Brien originally blamed the high cost of air travel in and out of Gander.
I sort of feel this is a case of dammed if you, dammed if you do not. As Municipal Affairs Minister, O'Brien is very much sought after by
municipalities, local service districts and other agencies throughout
Newfoundland and Labrador.
There is a cost to travel, of being available. If the minister spend most of his time holding court in his first floor office in the West Block in St. John's he would be criticized for not getting out and about, hearing from councils first hand. He would not see the needs for water, sewer, roads and other demands.
It would appear that O'Brien is an active minister who takes his job as an MHA, and as a Minister seriously. The demands on his time, like most Ministers is horrendous. No doubt he knows that comes with the territory, but is if fair, as some critics have, his travel to the House of Assembly Spending Scandals of the past? Of course not. The man is doing his job, he has nothing to apologize for. If he is on Her Majesties Service than he is doing his job. That comes at a cost.
MHA's are given travel allowances by the House of Assembly to facilitate travel to and from their districts. There is an area of grey between district travel and departmental travel for Ministers. I would argue that any travel by the Minister that is related to his/her department should be covered by the department. If the Ministers Executive Assistant or Constituency Assistant has to travel to the district to represent the MHA because he/she can not attend because the Minister is on Departmental business, the department should cover the costs, not the House of Assembly. If departmental travel takes the Minister to, or around his district, so what? Should they have to return to HQ in St. John's and than travel to the district? That would be ludicrous.
For those that claim he is a "weasel" by not driving the seven hours to, and from his district, you might want to reconsider. If he were driving, he would be getting paid the government travel rate and would certainly be profiting from the endeavor. This travel money is going to airlines not his wallet!
I have long argued that government departments have not utilized/embraced video conferencing in an effective way. With all of the fiber-optics strewn across this province to high schools, educational facilities and government offices, a great deal of savings could be realized. However, for some reason the available technology has not been utilized. In fact, at one point some of the video conferencing infrastructure was removed from the Confederation building because it was not being used enough to justify the cost. It makes not sense to me.
Government can, and should save money, by demanding that that on-line technologies be utilized more. Treasury Board should tell departments and ministers that they must attempt to use the technology before travel is approved. I think there are millions to be saved.
The bottom line, for me, is that Kevin O'Brien is doing his job. The job he was elected to do. It is not like he is being compensated for travel to illogical points somewhere in the Cabot Strait.