THERE IS A REASON WHY SO MANY OF CANADA’S FEDERAL POLITICIANS TRAVEL TO TAIWAN: THE FREEBIES
THERE IS A REASON WHY SO MANY OF CANADA’S FEDERAL POLITICIANS TRAVEL TO TAIWAN: THE FREEBIES
The first-class accommodations softened the rigors of the 21-hour journey to the other side of the world. The travellers—a handful of Canadian MPs and some of their wivesߞflew business class from Toronto to Taiwan and then spent seven nights in Taipei’s luxurious Grand Hyatt hotel, courtesy of the Taiwanese government and its agencies. But on the first day of the 1991 trip, part of an ongoing Taiwanese effort to cultivate contacts among Canadian politicians, one of the MPs discovered just how far the hospitality extended. When the group arrived at the hotel, the Taiwanese tour guide told him that if he had any “extra needs” he should see a bellboy in the lobby. Later, the bellboy himself asked the MP if he wanted female company. Recalled the MP, who says that he declined the free offer: “The guy told me, ‘You can have anything you like—white, Chinese or Malaysian.’ ”
That option is among the least publicized benefits sometimes offered to members of
Parliament who embark on fact-finding trips to Taiwan, currently the most popular junket destination for federal politicians. While countries such as South Korea, South Africa and Israel have traditionally sponsored such trips to win friends among elected officials, Taiwan has been particularly aggressive. Since 1986, when the House of Commons began keeping a
public record of sponsored foreign travel by MPs, the Taiwanese government and affiliated agencies such as the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce have organized at least 57 individual visits to the country by 55 Conservative and Liberal MPs. According to the official registry, the next most popular destination, Israel, drew 32 visitors from the House of Commons.
The MPs who have visited Taiwan, some more than once, say that the trips are worthwhile because they allow them to cultivate links with the island nation of 20 million people. But other parliamentarians say that it is a conflict of interest for politicians to accept free travel. New Democrat MP Philip Edmonston, for one, says that he has declined free trips to countries such as Japan because he wants to avoid any hint of impropriety. “These governments are not charitable agencies,” Edmonston said. “Their purpose is to affect the judgment of a member of Parliament. They are effectively trying to buy their support.”
Mark Cheng, director of Taiwan’s Economic
and Cultural Office in Toronto, dismisses such concerns. He says that his government’s aim is to promote cultural and commercial ties between Canada and Taiwan. “We Chinese treat people genuinely, and provide hospitality among friends,” says Cheng. “We want to educate Canadians about the economic opportunities for them in our country.”
Another strong supporter of travel to Taiwan is Conservative William Attewell, a former financial services executive who represents the Toronto-area riding of Markham. As the chairman of the Canada-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship Group, an organization of parliamentarians founded by former Tory MP Robert Coates in 1982, Attewell is effectively in charge of a small patronage machine: determining which politicians receive invitations to visit Taiwan at that country’s expense. “It is an area of the world where you are otherwise
unlikely to travel as an MP,” says Attewell, who has accepted three free trips to Taiwan. “Taiwan is booming, and you’re not going to get a piece of that business unless people of a fairly high stature visit the country.” He added that, among other things, lobbying by MPs helped Waterloo, Ont.-based Manulife Financial open an office in Taiwan.
In fact, Taiwan is approaching the next century as an economic powerhouse—while
continuing to be a diplomatic curiosity. Western nations recognized the island nation as the legitimate government of China after two million nationalists sought refuge there in the wake of mainland China’s 1949 Communist revolution. But in 1970, Canada made a landmark decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize Beijing as the seat of China’s government. In subsequent years, about 70 countries followed suit, and in political terms Taiwan has become increasingly isolated. Today, it is recognized by only 30 nations.
But diplomatic isolation has not prevented the government of Taiwan from engineering an economic miracle. A generation ago, Taiwan was a recipient of foreign aid; today it distributes it. Taiwan’s per capita income, which stood at a mere $475 in 1970, is now $9,015 compared with $23,800 in Canada. The country also possesses the world’s largest reserves of foreign exchange—$106 billion. Taking advantage of its increasing economic strength, Taiwan in the late 1970s began to court political respectability by inviting elected officials from Canada—and other Western nations—to visit. And while Cheng insists that he has never pressed his Canadian guests to lobby on behalf of Taiwan, he acknowledges that his country would like Canada to reinstate diplomatic recognition. Said Richard Boraks, a Toronto immigration lawyer who does business in Taiwan and has organized trips there on behalf of the island’s government: “The MPs are being used to wave the flag for Taiwan and stick it up Beijing’s rear.”
While Taiwanese officials deny that they have provided sexual favors to foreign visitors, some politicians and private business executives who have gone on Taiwanese-sponsored trips say that sexual services are sometimes offered at the host government’s expense—although none said that they had actually taken advantage of such enticements. But some federal politicians have enjoyed other features of Taiwanese largess. The MP who was propositioned in the hotel lobby, for one, says that junkets to Taiwan are popular because they are seen as luxurious getaways during which visitors are showered with gifts. “They f treat you like gold,” says the MP, who requested anonymity. “Any member of Parliament who goes over there comes back with at least $3,000 worth of personal gifts.”
The MP said that he returned from Taiwan with two extra suitcases filled with silk ties, books, silver and gold pens, jewelry, and silk clothing for his wife. He added that when his group passed through Taipei’s huge international trade centre, the Taiwanese hosts occasionally purchased items for MPs when they stopped to admire them. One colleague, the MP said, accepted a $600 piece of art.
Taiwanese officials, and some MPs who have
travelled to the country, say that such accounts are grossly exaggerated. “I was given a tie at a steel company, and somebody else gave me an umbrella,” says Toronto-area Conservative MP Alan Redway, who visited Taiwan in 1991 at the expense of the Taiwanese government. Added Derek Lee, a Liberal MP from Toronto who has taken two free trips to Taiwan since he entered the House of Commons in 1988: “I remember some souvenir items, but there is nothing I received that I would remember having said, ‘Wow! What a great gift.’ ”
Although most MPs categorize the trips to Taiwan as official business, they almost always accept the standing Taiwanese invitation to bring their spouses. Attewell, who has taken his wife to Taiwan twice, says that MPs enjoy that feature of the tour because political life often entails long absences from home. “We’re up in Ottawa 30 to 40 weeks a year for four days a week, and your spouse is in Toronto or Vancouver or wherever,” explains Attewell. “This is an opportunity to be together and blend it with what you’re trying to do there.” And by all accounts, the MPs’ overseas schedules are demanding.
Waterloo-area Conservative MP Harry Brightwell took a week-long sponsored trip to Taiwan in 1990 with two House of Commons colleagues and says that the 12hour daily routine included visits to steel plants, shipyards, the Taiwanese parliament, Buddhist temples and the international trade centre. “There was very little opportunity to play, as in going out to a good meal or show,” says Brightwell.
Even so, critics say that it is wrong for MPs to accept free plane tickets, valued at $4,000 per person, and hotel accommodation worth up to $700 a day. “The reason most MPs do this is to relieve the tedium of their everyday work and to go some place where they would never have the money themselves to go,” says the NDP’s Edmonston. “I think it’s a pernicious way for foreign governments to gain influence at the expense of the democratic process.” He says that junkets should be banned, and that if it is important for parliamentarians to undertake foreign travel, it should be paid for by the Canadian government.
In fact, chairman Attewell’s role is controversial even among MPs who have gone on Taiwanese junkets. They say that Attewell frequently has the final say over who goes on the excursions because the Taiwanese traditionally defer to the person they have accepted as their chief contact on Parliament Hill. In-
deed, when contacted by Maclean’s, Cheng referred all specific queries about the trip program to Attewell. And on one occasion, Attewell used his power to effectively block parliamentarians from taking the tour. Boraks says that he organized a junket to Taiwan last November for Senate Speaker Guy Charbonneau and three Conservative MPs, but Attewell vetoed the trip. Attewell, for his part, said that he told the group that they were free to visit Taiwan on their own, but not as part of his excursion. Attewell added that the only representation he has made on behalf of Taiwan was to press Canadian officials to create a multipleentry visa so that Taiwanese visitors can travel freely between the United States and Canada.
Before the provision was introduced, he says, Taiwanese businessmen who were travelling in the United States met with unnecessary red tape when attempting on short notice to enter Canada. Said Attewell: “I remember when I first heard about the problem a few years ago, thinking, ‘Well that sounds like a good thing to do. Why wouldn’t we try and help on that?’ I don’t call that lobbying for some special interest group.”
Attewell also insists that he has not heard of any MP lobbying the Mulroney government on Taiwan’s behalf. But External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall says that several MPs have contacted her to ask that Canada extend diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. “I don’t know if the MPs who took these trips are the ones who
lobbied me,” McDougall told Maclean’s. “I could look at it, I suppose, but it doesn’t worry me.” The minister says that she herself was offered a Taiwan junket the day after winning election to Parliament in 1984, but turned the offer down. “I’m very cautious about accepting freebies,” said McDougall. “There is a question of influence.” But unlike Edmonston, McDougall says that she does not see any need to outlaw junkets paid for by foreign governments. “In the case of Taiwan, the issue of diplomatic recognition is so well-known,” said the minister. “If the issue were something little and off-the-wall—that would worry me.” In the absence of diplomatic ties between Canada and Taiwan, Boraks says that the parliamentary delegations are filling a vacuum by maintaining relations on Canada’s behalf with a country that conducts $3.2 billion a year in trade with Canada. Taiwan is Canada’s eighth largest supplier, and thirteenth largest purchaser, of goods and services. The MPs, for their part, say that visits to Taiwan by high-level Canadian officials make it easier for Canadian companies to do business in the country. In that respect, Attewell says that a one-day stopover in Taipei by Trade Minister Michael Wilson on Sept. 2—billed as a private visit to avoid antagonizing mainland China—was a breakthrough. The highlight of Wilson’s visit, which was organized by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and by Canadian business interests in Taiwan: a speech to a blue-ribbon Taipei audience that included the country’s finance minister. Said Mark Levitz, a Canadian lawyer based in Taipei who helped to organize Wilson’s speech: “It will accelerate trade between our two countries.”
But the notion that politicians are essential for the conduct of trade on that edge of the Pacific Rim is dismissed by one organization with strong ties to Taiwan. Darcy Rezac, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, says that his 4,000-member organization runs its own trade missions to Taiwan. Rezac adds that there are no significant trade barriers between Canada and Taiwan and that he does not know of one businessman who has ever run into a problem that required political intervention. “It doesn’t take politicians to open doors,” said Rezac. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what the benefit is of having MPs go over there.” Those doubts are clearly not shared by many of Canada’s globe-trotting politicians.
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