Posted on

The travel bug

Peter Wickham

The travel bug

Social Share

Although international travel is nowhere as exotic as it was once perceived to be, it is clear from the discussion over the past week that the international activities of political functionaries are generating considerable interest.
This interest is unfortunately not born out of a genuine interest in the international business that is being conducted on our behalf, but because many of us believe that politicians take advantage of their position to “joyride” and waste taxpayers’ money.  
There can be no question that this type of thing is entirely possible and has happened in the past. However, if we assume that international travel is always unnecessary, the debate unfortunately becomes sterile.
In the business of politics, travel will always be a logical target for the critics of an administration since it holds many peculiar properties.
Among these is the fact that travel is expensive and the benefits are seldom ever sufficiently proximate to the trip to allow a politician to demonstrate a clear cost-benefit relationship.
In addition, most of us associate travel with holidays and not business; hence these two factors will always coincide to make business travel by politicians difficult to justify.
This issue raises several general and specific points and in the former regard, I support the need for politicians in both this and the former administration to travel regionally and internationally within reason.
Barbados is a small politically independent island without the means to support itself economically, and this absence of economic independence will always mean that “good” politics means that we constantly need to be making friends and influencing people in the region and abroad.
Our private sector needs to sell itself overseas and so do our politicians, and face to face interaction will always be a superior mode of communication.  
This said, experience has taught that all interaction is not equal and some is naturally more valuable and indeed more expensive. Generally, I have found that larger meetings and conferences are considerably less useful than more intimate interactions overseas and in a situation where resources are limited, it would seem logical to prioritise the more intimate interaction.
Interactions that are intimate and non-structured, although valuable, tend to present political challenges since it is easier to justify expensive travel to attend a large conference, than to meet some arbitrary official to “chat”.
Moreover, Caribbean politicians will generally agree that it is easier to “ambush” other politicians at regional and international conferences and “bend their ears” at those meetings, than to attempt to schedule private meetings.
In situations like this, two minutes chatting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard about some mutually beneficial project during a coffee break is probably more valuable than the interaction at an entire three-day meeting, especially as there is a very low likelihood of our Prime Minister meeting the Australian leader otherwise.
Moving from the general to the specific, the SUNDAY?SUN feature that appeared one week ago today needs to be addressed. The numerical comparison of “trips” made by ministers in both administrations needs to be seen in the context of the raging local discussion about the cost of political travel.
Although the article never alludes to cost, one assumes that is the basis of public concerns, consistent with the foregoing comments.  
In this context, if the reader assumes that all trips were funded by Government, this is neither fair nor true since a minister has to be replaced any time he or she travels regardless of whether travel is funded by the sponsor (as in the case of some board meetings) or by the minister, in the case of personal travel, or by the Government which is what would be assumed.
All “trips” therefore are not created equal since some are at no cost to the taxpayer and there is also personal travel which should be of no interest to us.
In addition to the issue of sponsorship is the implied comparison of “trips” taken by both administrations.
It would seem inappropriate to compare Prime Ministers Stuart and Arthur and equally inappropriate to compare Ministers Sinckler and Miller, since both had the designation “Minister of Foreign Affairs” but functionally they did very different jobs at different times in our development.
The composition of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was different under both administrations, as is the Office of the Prime Minister, and since overseas engagements are related to ministerial responsibilities, then to compare “office holders” is like comparing apples and oranges.  
If one cannot compare office holders, then reasonable questions can be raised about the logic of comparing administrations within a time period which was the intention of the article in pursuit of Minister Donville Inniss’ point.
Like other commentators, I am guilty of making reference to “unnecessary and expensive trips” from time to time. However, in honesty, this reference is highly opportunistic since the cost of a trip to the taxpayer is based on a budget that is approved by Parliament in full view of the population.
The majority of governmental travel would be reflected somewhere in the department’s estimates of expenditure and if Parliament has approved the money, the specifics of the actual journey are less relevant.  
The Governor General’s attendance at the royal wedding comes quickly to mind since I objected to that trip. However, one assumes that funds were voted for official travel and this trip would have been conducted within those constraints.
If we accept the principle that a politician needs to travel, then issues such as the size of the entourage and the class of travel should become minor details.
The environment in which the discussion on political travel takes place is symptomatic of a larger problem of transparency in Government. The fact that information on the cost of Government’s business travel is not in the public domain
lays the basis for considerable speculation and the assumption that something “fishy” is up.
Last Sunday’s article is reflective of this type of speculation that would end if Government regularly published such information, instead of forcing journalists to adopt unorthodox methods to investigate these matters.
Editor’s note: Last Sunday’s article entitled Tale Of Trips did not attempt to make any assumptions about costs or reasons for Government ministers’ travel. It simply reported on the frequency of their travel in the current and previous administrations as recorded by the Official Gazette.