Frequent flyers: Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil tops list of premiers racking up international travel
The premier of one of Canada’s smallest provinces racked up the most international travel in 2017 — spending more than one month outside of Canada on government trips.
A Global News analysis has found Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil spent 19 more days abroad than any other premier in Canada.
He spent 43 days outside of the country in 2017, including taxpayer-funded work trips to Washington, D.C., the United Kingdom, China, Japan, New York City, France and Boston.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne landed a distant second, spending 24 days travelling outside of Canada. All but one of her trips was to the United States; the other one was a 14-day trip to Vietnam and China.
Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod came in third with 20 days of international travel to Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and Iceland.
At the other end of the spectrum, B.C. Premier John Horgan stayed close to home after securing a precarious minority government last summer. Horgan spent just three days travelling outside the country.
WATCH: The premier of one of Canada’s smallest provinces racked up the most international travel in 2017 — spending more than one month outside of Canada on government trips. Marieke Walsh has the exclusive story.
Here’s a look at the international travel habits of all 13 Canadian premiers.
Premier Brian Pallister has come under fire in Manitoba for his travel to Costa Rica, but because the trips are not taxpayer-funded, they were not included in this analysis. Last year, Pallister spent three weeks at his vacation home down south. But Pallister’s travel bug doesn’t appear to extend to work trips. He only spent five days outside Canada in his official capacity as Manitoba premier.
Former B.C. premier Christy Clark had no international travel last year, according to her former press secretary. And newly-elected Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa had no international travel in 2017.
’43 days of travel is required’: McNeil
In an interview with Global News, McNeil staunchly defended his travel and promised more. While provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have international offices, McNeil said Nova Scotia doesn’t.
“They have people there representing them every day,” he said.
“For our province, we need to go and represent ourselves. Often times, I as the premier, the office of the premier, opens the door for business.”
He said his travel has focused on Asia, the United States and the United Kingdom — regions where the province sees a chance to “drive opportunity.”
Since 2010, Nova Scotia has seen a steep climb in exports to China. According to Export Development Canada, the province has benefited from China’s burgeoning middle class and the “Chinese consumer’s appetite for high-quality seafood.”
Under then-premier Darrell Dexter and now McNeil, Nova Scotia’s exports to China have gone up more than 780 per cent.
“Forty-three days of travel is required last year to make sure that our voices were being heard,” McNeil said.
Turning the question around, he wondered which trip he shouldn’t have taken.
“Do I not go into the U.K. to make sure there are exports in seafood?” he asked. “Or the fact that there are businesses over there that require the premier to knock on their door?”
Documents released through access to information show bureaucrats scrambled to find him meetings during his August trip to the United Kingdom. “Everything in the U.K. (and all of Europe) shuts down in August,” read an email from the Canadian High Commission.
McNeil said he went there to court a gaming company that was looking to move to Canada. He said the province is “still working” to sell them on the move. His office wouldn’t release the name of the company.
On the last day of his trip to France — a Saturday — his itinerary called it a day for “Nova Scotia files.” His office said it was to give the delegation a day to “follow up while on the ground there, if necessary,” and at the same time, “work on the ongoing business of government.”
All of McNeil’s international trips were publicly announced last year, except for his trip to New York. That trip was only posted on the province’s expenses website about a month after it happened.
“All of the expenses related to my travel are online,” he said.
“While I may not have sent a press release out, I think it’s unfair to suggest that we haven’t been transparent.”
McNeil said the trip to New York was for an award ceremony for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and South Korea President Moon Jae-In.
‘That’s a lot’: Former chief of staff to PM
In an interview with Global News, Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff David McLaughlin said travel by premiers is “legitimate and important” as long as governments can “justify it and defend it.”
But by not releasing information about a trip at the outset, he said the premier’s office should “not be surprised” that it will get more scrutiny.
“You can’t hide these things even if you wanted to,” McLaughlin said.
When considering an international trip, he said he tells the Conservative politicians he advises to answer the questions: “What’s the reason, how can we justify it?” McLaughlin added that taxpayers will “accept” travel if they can understand it and see the purpose.
For example, he said under the Trump administration, taxpayers understand the full-court press that premiers are making south of the border.
“Being in the United States these days is probably ‘job one’ internationally for premiers,” he said.
The length and frequency of McNeil’s travel add to the scrutiny, McLaughlin said. “It’s kind of a political algorithm: the longer you’re away, the more you have to justify the fact that you were away.”
“If you are taking a fair amount of time to travel internationally, there’s a question about what’s not being done back home but also of course the costs of doing it,” he said.
WATCH: Wynne, Couillard say international travel essential for promoting provincial business
United States is the hottest destination, Europe and Middle East the outliers
The United States dominated most premiers’ agendas, followed by trips to Asia, while trips to Europe and the Middle East were the outliers.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and McLeod spent the most days in the United States last year, at 14 each. But Wynne racked up the most trips to the United States, stopping in on the country on six different trips.
In an interview, Wynne said her trips have allowed her to meet with more than 30 governors on top of federal politicians and business leaders.
“This is a really important time for this relationship,” she said. “Had the NAFTA renegotiation not started, I wouldn’t be travelling to the United States as much as I am.”
“I need to respond to the circumstances that I am facing.”
In addition to McNeil, two other premiers went to Europe last year — both were for summits. McLeod went to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland and Quebec’s Philippe Couillard went to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum.
Couillard was the only premier to travel to the Middle East — visiting Israel and the West Bank for six days. He defended his travel saying Israel is a “start-up nation” that Quebec can learn from.
“It’s a democratic society in the Middle East and I see nothing wrong or strange for us to go and establish relations,” Couillard said.
-With files from Raquel Fletcher
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.