Frequent Flyers: McNeil says not announcing 30 per cent of trips in advance doesn’t show ‘secrecy’

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Privacy advocates hammer McNeil over travel announcements
Wed, Feb 28: Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says not announcing 30 per cent of trips in advance doesn't show a push for 'secrecy' from his office – Feb 28, 2018

Press releases aren’t always the way that journalists, opposition parties, and Nova Scotians find out about Premier Stephen McNeil’s travel.

Sometimes his travel is announced through a traditional note to editors or a press release. Other times, journalists find it out themselves, or journalists in another city will tip-off Nova Scotia reporters about a McNeil trip, and other times it’s announced by other politicians — for example, through the prime minister’s itinerary.

Sometimes though, the only way to learn about his travel is through expenses posted online more than one month after a trip takes place.

A Global News analysis shows that over the last four years, 30 per cent of McNeil’s trips within Canada and abroad were not announced through the usual press release.

READ MORE: What we know about N.S. Premier Stephen McNeil’s travel abroad in 2017

The trips that went unannounced include three trips to New York City, one trip to London, U.K., and ten trips within Canada to places such as Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.

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Global News identified the trips through access to information requests and online expense postings that started in 2015. The trips were then cross referenced with press releases, notes-to-editors, and government statements sent to Global News by Communications Nova Scotia and also posted online.

Out of the 47 trips identified, Global News could not find a public release for 14 of the trips. Many other trips had one or two notes sent out to the press in advance of the trip, while others were only accompanied by a release during or after the trip.

Four international trips not publicly announced

McNeil’s trips to New York in 2015, 2016 and 2017 were never announced in a press release.

While the lack of a release runs counter to standard practice, Communications Nova Scotia said there is “no policy” on issuing releases when ministers or the premier travel.

McNeil’s 2016 trip to New York in September was part of his mission to Asia. But the press release announcing the trip to Asia does not mention the stop-over into the United States and calls the trip an 11-day event rather than 15 days.

In an interview with Global News, McNeil said New York was a late addition.

“I was invited to attend that meeting while I was on my trip into Asia,” he said.

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WATCH: Stephen McNeil defends transparency, says all expenses are available online

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Stephen McNeil defends transparency, says all expenses are available online

His spokesperson David Jackson said the 2016 trip included a meeting with IBM, a “Chinese investor to talk about investment opportunities,” and an award ceremony at the Atlantic Council.

Similarly, his three-day trip to New York in 2017 was also to attend that year’s award ceremony at the Atlantic Council and talk to investors. Global News had been asking about his 2017 trip since December. Until the interview with McNeil this week his office would only say the trip was for “business development.”

Jackson said McNeil’s May 2015 trip also included meetings with Chinese investors. For each trip, the names of specific people and companies were not released, citing “privacy.”

The premier’s trips to the Big Apple are all posted in his online expenses and are filed under the intergovernmental affairs category.

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In 2016, McNeil also went to London for an “education mission,” according to his agenda obtained through access to information. The trip coincided with then-education minister Karen Casey’s trip to the United Kingdom. His office said his trip included meetings on education and a “business luncheon with a seafood company.”

McNeil stops releasing an itinerary in 2015

The premier’s office used to release McNeil’s weekly itinerary but stopped in the summer of 2015.

For the week of May 5, 2015, his itinerary said he would be in Halifax and his constituency from Friday May 8 to Sunday May 11. However, his agenda received through access to information and his online expenses show he was in Ottawa.

That trip was never publicly announced through a press release. Jackson didn’t work for McNeil at the time but said he suspects the Ottawa trip was only confirmed after the itinerary was sent out.

The subsequent week when McNeil was in New York, no itinerary was released. A few weeks later, his office stopped releasing a weekly itinerary. That is out of step with the prime minister, and premiers for Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the North West Territories. A Nunavut spokesperson said the government would soon be releasing the Premier Paul Quassa’s itinerary.

But premiers in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI, Manitoba, B.C. and the Yukon also don’t release their itineraries either publicly or to reporters.

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In the case of PEI Premier Wade MacLauchlan, his office did not reply to repeated requests for information. But PEI legislature reporter Teresa Wright confirmed he does not release an itinerary.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil tops list of premiers racking up international travel

‘It doesn’t mean there’s any secrecy’: McNeil

Because he started posting his expenses online, McNeil said it’s “unfair to suggest that we haven’t been transparent.”

Press releases and expenses are both posted to the government website. But while news releases are immediately available on the home page that’s not the case for expenses. The expenses also aren’t listed on the premier’s page and they are not posted under his expense filing as premier but instead posted under his role as minister of intergovernmental affairs.

“It’s pretty hard for me to hide a trip when I’m actually putting all my expenses on line,” he said.

“You may not have gotten a press release on a few of the trips that I’ve taken, it doesn’t mean there’s any secrecy around them.”

Still, his office appears to be changing its practices. In January staff held a technical briefing ahead of his trip to Asia and a statement from his office said that will continue — although it didn’t specify whether that would apply to Canadian trips as well.

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WATCH: Stephen McNeil defends his travel time as necessary for Nova Scotia

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Stephen McNeil defends his travel time as necessary for Nova Scotia

‘When they’re doing their job properly — you have nothing to hide’: Right to Know Coalition

Nova Scotia’s Right to Know Coalition says McNeil’s justification that eventually everything was posted online through travel expenses doesn’t pass the smell test.

“It’s still impossible to know who he was meeting with, why he did it and why he was spending the money of the people of Nova Scotia to do it,” the group’s president Michael Karanicolas said.

He said the lack of hard information on the trips naturally lead to speculation around misuse of taxpayers money.

“It’s not nice to level those kinds of accusations,” he said. “But this is why politicians should embrace transparency because fundamentally it shows when they’re doing their job properly — you have nothing to hide.”

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Karanicolas said Nova Scotia is “falling behind the global curve” and is missing “totally standard” disclosures that other governments make. He called on the government to create a standard policy for releasing information on government travel with advance notice of travel and itineraries.

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