[Viewpoint] In search of transparency

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[Viewpoint] In search of transparency

The credit card bill included charges of 317 Canadian dollars for a three-night hotel stay and another 171.36 Canadian dollars for meals and incidentals over four days.

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon spent this money as part of a trip to attend a bilateral meeting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in May.

You can find this information relatively easily on the official Web site of the Canadian government, www.canada.gc.ca, by clicking on the “Proactive Disclosure” link located on the left side of the page.

The site offers detailed information on hospitality and travel expenses for senior officials in every government agency.

If you look at the other expenses Cannon logged, you’ll find that he spent 68.29 Canadian dollars for meals during a one-day trip to New York in March. The purpose of the trip was to attend a United Nations meeting.

That’s quite frugal for meals in New York, at least if you’re a high-profile government official.

Other Canadian officials have displayed such thriftiness as well.

Gary Lunn, the country’s minister of state for sport, disclosed the financial details of a two-day domestic trip to attend a track-and-field event in Vancouver, during which he spent 163 Canadian dollars in lodging and 104 Canadian dollars on meals.

In December 2003, Canada passed a law that requires senior government officials to disclose detailed expense statements for official trips.

With Canada pursuing fiscal austerity, the government decided to set an example by working to reduce official expenses first.

The itemized expense reports are organized and released every three months. There is even a mechanism to examine the reports to check for false claims or omissions.

In Canada, senior officials and politicians who serve in the government are even competing to cut down expenses.

In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stayed in a humble hotel for 110 Canadian dollars a night during a domestic business trip. But the opposition party criticized the accommodation choice as a “political show to win popularity.”

Canada has been disclosing these travel expenses for more than six years, but this type of transparency has recently become a hot-potato issue in Europe.

The United Kingdom has declared that the government will slash the budget for each ministry by as much as 40 percent, and some people are urging the country to adopt the Canadian expense policy to oversee the spending of British politicians.

The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, went a step further and argued that the hospitality and travel expenses of senior officials with the European Commission - the executive body of the European Union - and members of the European Parliament should be disclosed in detail.

The high-ranking executives of the EU, whose activities are not controlled by individual nations, are frequently criticized for wastefully spending taxpayer money from EU member countries.

Not so long ago, Le Figaro, a French daily newspaper, also featured an article focused on Canada’s proactive disclosure policy.

In France earlier this month, two junior ministers were forced to resign over scandals tied to the inappropriate use of public funds.

Christian Blanc, state secretary for the greater Paris region, purchased Cuban cigars with taxpayer money for hospitality purposes, while French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet chartered a private jet to attend an international meeting abroad.

The EU is paying close attention to Canada’s model because its countries are having to severely cut back on welfare services and expand tax revenue.

European leaders cannot afford to enjoy luxurious lifestyles as their citizens suffer from the economic slump.

The situation is a little different for us here in Korea, but wasteful spending in the government is controversial as well.

We often hear about official overseas trips government officials take that sound more like vacations than business outings.

There is no reason that Canada’s transparency policy cannot be introduced here as well - or any other country, for that matter.

Perhaps it is time we consider adopting it before spending spirals out of control.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Sang-eon
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