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Parliament spent nearly $600,000 on luxury hotel rooms it never used

Parliament spent nearly $600,000 on luxury hotel rooms it didn't use when nearly half of the delegates at a conference of European parliamentarians it hosted either didn't show up or chose less expensive hotels.

Conservative whip calls it a 'disastrous waste of money'

MP Hedy Fry and Senator Peter Boehm at the July 2023 OSCE AP conference in Vancouver.

Parliament spent nearly $600,000 on luxury hotel rooms it didn't use when nearly half of the listed delegates for a conference of European parliamentarians it hosted either didn't show up or chose less expensive hotels.

Parliament expected 700 delegates to attend the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which took place in Vancouver from June 30 to July 4. The conference is usually held in Europe, where most of its members are based.

Only 365 delegates ended up attending, and not all of them stayed at the hotels the government selected. That left taxpayers on the hook for 1,400 overnight stays worth $596,000 in total — an average of $425 a night.

Audio-visual costs for the conference were also higher than expected, contributing to the event going $649,000 over the original budget of $1.8 million.

Sen. Elizabeth Marshall, former auditor general for Newfoundland and Labrador, questioned why the conference cost so much.

WATCH: Looking back at the OSCE PA conference

What did the OSCE AP delegates talk about?

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Duration 1:52

Liberal MP Hedy Fry, head of the Canadian delegation to the OSCE AP conference last summer, describes what was accomplished during the conference.

"It is very concerning, especially in the current economic times, when people are lined up at food banks while we're looking at a $1.8 million event that went 35 per cent over budget," Marshall said when parliamentary officials appeared before the Senate's internal economy, budgets and administration committee. "That does not look good on either the Senate or the House of Commons."

Conservative Sen. Don Plett said he was disturbed by the deficit.

"I'm not sure how we can just … sugarcoat this and pass this off," he told the committee. "A deficit of over a half a million dollars."

Members of Parliament were also taken aback by the amount of money spent on rooms that weren't used.

"I think this is a disastrous waste of money, quite frankly," Conservative whip Kerry-Lynne Findlay told members of the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy.

"I'm really disturbed by this," said NDP House leader Peter Julian. "This is a massive deficit. I just think, at a time when Canadians are really struggling, I can't see it being justified."

Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who headed the Canadian delegation in her riding and pitched for Canada to welcome the conference, defended the decision to host. She said organizers were only told in May that attendance would be much lower than expected and while they released as many rooms as they could, they were bound by the contracts signed with the hotels.

"We had a pretty normal delegate showing, and then, for whatever reason, people just didn't turn up," Fry told CBC News. "I think one of the reasons, we found out later on, was that also our hotel rooms had increased since pre-pandemic. The cost of hotels in Vancouver just shot up post-pandemic."

Russian and Belarusian delegations didn't attend because of sanctions Canada imposed on their countries following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. During the last in-person pre-pandemic conference in Luxembourg in 2019, there were 34 people in the Russian delegation and five Belarusians, said Nat Parry, head of communications for the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly.

"Other delegations that could not make it to Vancouver cited budgetary constraints and the cost of travel to Vancouver for their cancellations, but Russia and Belarus were not able to attend due to difficulty obtaining visas," Parry said.

Fry said in future, parliamentary conference organizers will ask organizations Canada is hosting to only provide delegate numbers when they are more certain of attendance. Delegates who cancel at the last minute should have to pay at least a minimal amount for the rooms that were booked for them, she added.

The organization now known as the OSCE, which dates back to the 1970s, was a bid to improve dialogue between the West and Eastern Bloc countries. The Parliamentary Assembly was added in 1991. While most of the OSCE PA's 57 member countries are in Europe, Canada and the United States are also members.

Prior to the Vancouver conference, the last time Canada hosted the OSCE PA's annual conference was in 1995 in Ottawa. When Parliament hosts an international conference, the House of Commons pays 70 per cent of the costs and the Senate pays 30 per cent.

The Vancouver conference was supposed to take place in 2020 but was postponed to 2023 because of the pandemic.

Organizers booked rooms in five luxury hotels close to the Vancouver Convention Centre where the conference took place — the Hyatt Regency, the Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, the Fairmont Waterfront and the Marriott Vancouver Pinnacle Downtown. Contracts with each hotel guaranteed them a minimum amount of revenue.

While the rate the government paid for rooms at each hotel is not known, room rates at the hotels — all of which have either four or five star ratings — range from around $426 to $1,024 a night at that time of year.

That was too expensive for many delegates. While a number simply didn't make the trip to Vancouver, others opted for cheaper rooms further from the conference.

In his presentation to the Senate and House of Commons internal economy boards, Jeremy LeBlanc, Parliament's director general of international and interparliamentary affairs, said one third of the delegates who attended the conference opted for hotels that were further afield.

In May, organizers released as many rooms as they could back to the hotels, but under the contracts they signed, they were still obliged to pay for many of the rooms conference delegates didn't use.

The hotels have not yet responded to questions from CBC News about whether the rooms released by Parliament were resold to other guests.

Sen. Peter Boehm, a former Canadian diplomat who helped organize conferences such as the G7 in the past, said European countries consider the OSCE PA a "prestigious" event to host.

Boehm said organizers originally were told the Russian delegation would attend but they had been sanctioned by Canada and might have been embarrassed by the discussion during the conference of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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