A CIRCUMSTANCE of birth led to Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin attending the annual Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference last month in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Austin said he was walking into the Legislative buildings one day when Bill Barisoff, the Speaker of the House, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if it was true that his mother was born in Sri Lanka.
“I wondered how he knew. Actually both my parents were born in Sri Lanka,” recalled Austin.
And it was because of that connection with Sri Lanka that Austin said he was chosen to attend the conference as a delegate representing the Official Opposition in the Legislature.
The cost of Austin’s attendance at the Sri Lankan conference – $19,468 to cover travel, accommodations and conference fees – was enough to place him at the top of the MLAs’ travel and living expense list for the six months ending September 30 with a total spend of $53,606.
More than 800 delegates attended the convention of the parliamentary association which is made up of countries having governing systems based on the British model.
Austin said B.C. has been a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for years and that by tradition, the Speaker of the House and an opposition member attend along with the Clerk of the House.
“Usually someone from the opposition is chosen by the [opposition] whip’s office,” said Austin.
“I guess this time they knew of my family connections so they asked that I be the one,” Austin continued.
Austin’s wife accompanied him and Barisoff’s wife accompanied him, making for a BC delegation of five people once the Clerk of the House was counted in.
But although the wives of Austin and Barisoff went along, Austin said there was no extra expense.
“The Speaker’s office deals with a travel agency and I guess the office handles so much travel that they got the tickets, business class tickets, as a two for one. They bought one and got the other for nothing,” said Austin.
He said the Speaker’s office handled all of the travel and conference booking arrangements.
If Austin was listed as the top spender, Barisoff had the second highest expense list at $46,410.
His out of country travel total was $5,648 but Austin said that’s because he had not yet filed all of his expenses on time to be included in the April to September tally.
Norm Macdonald, a NDP MLA, was third with $45,332 while Stikine NDP MLA Doug Donaldson placed fourth at $42,678.
Liberal John Rustad, who represents the Nechako Lakes riding, was fifth at $39,653 and Gary Coons, who represents the NDP for the North Coast riding was sixth with $37,514.
Take away Austin’s Speaker-approved costs to attend the parliamentary conference and his remaining expenses of $34,120 place him in the mid-range of MLA travel spending.
Austin spent $21,708 in general travel with a per diem total of $785.
He spent $6,000 on accommodation while in Victoria and $1,356 on a per diem allowance while there.