Politicians score seats for top events before public; Taxpayers chip in for Olympic tickets to 'advance agenda'

By Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, 25 Jan 2010



The federal government is using its access to Olympic tickets to give priority to politicians, bureaucrats and others who will get some of the best seats in the house during the Winter Games next month.

Of the nearly 1,500 tickets that the government has received, more than half will go to MPs, senators and bureaucrats who were able to put in their own orders in advance of the public.

At one point, the number was much higher. Ottawa was originally allocated more than 2,500 tickets to everything from the opening and closing ceremonies to medal events such as gold medal hockey, figure skating and speed skating.

But Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said more than half of the $447,000 spent on the tickets will be recovered from MPs and senators who have to pay out of their own pocket.

Both the federal and provincial governments insist taxpayers are only paying for tickets used to advance government agendas, not for anyone merely to have a good time.

The British Columbia government has spent nearly $1 million on tickets.

Documents obtained under Access to Information by Vancouver freelance journalist Stanley Tromp show that before tickets were offered for sale to the public, Ottawa was permitted to put in orders for the 2,552 tickets the Vancouver Organizing Committee agreed to sell to them.

Under the terms of the multiparty agreement, governments, national Olympic committees, sport federations, corporate sponsors and other members of the loosely termed "Olympic Family" were given access to tickets before the public had a chance to buy any.

As part of the agreement, all MPs and senators are accredited to the Games by Vanoc. But in May 2008, as it was in the middle of its ticket request process, the government decided to give parliamentarians and "domestic dignitaries" special access to its ticket allocations. It said they could buy tickets to all prime and non-prime events for themselves and their spouses as long as the tickets -- ranging from $25 to $1,100 -- were available.

In the months following that decision, government officials received more than 3,400 requests for 2,552 tickets.

But last July, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, facing a budget crunch, ordered that 1,000 of the tickets be returned, most of the tickets the government threw back were to less desirable events. In fact, it kept the full allocations of the most popular sports, including figure skating, short and long track speed skating, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. For ice hockey, where it was originally allocated 730 tickets, it kept 60 per cent -- but most of those were for top draws, including the Canadian matches. Not only did Ottawa receive 100 per cent of the 126 tickets it sought to the opening ceremony, but all but 10 of those were the best "A" section seats at $1,100 apiece.

Despite the cut in allocations, the government's advance access to tickets means those politicians were still able to queue-jump over members of the public who had to duke it out online. Many people have complained about having to wait for hours in Vanoc's "virtual waiting room" only to discover the tickets they wanted were no longer available. Of the more than 1.6 million tickets Vanoc produced, only 900,000 went to the public, including to scalpers.

By far, the largest block of tickets the government wanted was for ice hockey. Originally the government put in requests for 1,108. It now has 444. The last spreadsheet the government released under Access to Information shows that it planned to spend $15,050 for 20 tickets for the gold medal men's event, which Canada has a strong chance of winning. Of those 20, 18 were for the best seats at $775 each.

In figure skating, it put in for 34 tickets in the pairs short program in the $420 "A" category, was allocated 20, and indicated it still wanted all 34 if it could get them, along with another 20 tickets in two cheaper categories.

By far the biggest hit to the taxpayers will be for the ceremonies. The federal government will spend more than $135,000 on access to the opening ceremony, and $72,700 for the closing event.

Eventually, it whittled down the allocation to 1,494 tickets.

Moore said this week the government agreed to act as a broker for parliamentarians and will use the other tickets, including those to the ceremonies, to attract domestic and international interests, including business development and investments and foreign and domestic tourism.

"We've said that every single politician who is going to go to the Games has to pay for the tickets themselves," he said.

"The Olympics are a cost of the MP themselves, not of their office budget, not of their ministerial budget. So if an MP wants to go to a sporting event, they pay for it out of their personal funds."

Moore also insisted that bureaucrats who don't have a justifiable business reason won't get a government-paid ticket.

"They don't get to go for fun, they only can go if it is business-related. If it is related to their work, they can go," he said. "But there won't be any bureaucrats or officials sitting in the stands watching sporting events having a good ol' time at the expense of taxpayers. That is just not going to happen."

The B.C. provincial government, by comparison, was given access to 3,200 tickets at a cost of nearly $1 million. But unlike Ottawa, it chose not to give any elected officials or bureaucrats access to purchase the tickets and instead has reserved them for advancing the government's economic aims, according to Mary McNeil, the minister responsible for the Olympics.

The only MLAs who will get tickets will be those who have business cases that justify access or who are asked to participate in hosting events, she said. The rest will be given to current and future business partners, academics, researchers and others with government-related business.

"The people we've invited are current or future customers and others," she said. "No MLA will attend any sporting event with these tickets if they aren't required to do so in the performance of their jobs. And no spouses, either."

Victoria believes networking with important clients at sporting events is a justified expense, she said.

But the federal government disagrees. Moore said the Harper government expects politicians and bureaucrats to conduct most of their networking outside of the sporting venues at the Canada Pavilion, ministers' offices and at two hosting facilities in Vancouver and Whistler.

"Taxpayers will not be paying for any sporting event for any politician, including myself and any minister," he said.

Unlike the federal Conservatives, the opposition New Democratic Party and Liberal Party refused to participate in the government ticket buying program.



City pays $377,000 for Olympic tickets; Politicians to get some of best seats for hockey, opening and closing ceremonies

By Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, 26 Jan 2010


The City of Vancouver is spending $377,370 to buy just over 2,000 tickets to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Of that, more than 70 per cent is for just two sports: hockey and curling.

But the city is also buying some of the best seats in BC Place for elected officials for the opening and closing ceremonies.

More than $170,000 of property taxpayers' funds has been spent for those two ceremonies, for which the city has purchased 200 tickets. Of those, 80 per cent are for "A" category seats.

A breakdown of the 2,024 tickets the city bought for its hosting and hospitality programs was obtained by Vancouver freelance journalist Stanley Tromp.

The list shows the city has been allocated every single ticket it asked for, right down to two tickets to long-track speed skating at the Richmond oval.

The vast majority, however, are for two sports held within Vancouver's city limits: 754 tickets for curling at the new Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre at Riley Park, and 695 tickets for hockey at GM Place and the University of B.C.'s Thunderbird Sports Centre.

For the most part, the city limited its purchases to events within its boundaries, with a few notable exceptions: It acquired 138 tickets for a combination of Whistler events, including 46 for bobsleigh and 34 for alpine skiing.

City spokeswoman Wendy Stewart said the city bought a number of multi-event packages to get certain tickets it wanted. That's why, for example, it ended up with four tickets each to biathlon, luge and skeleton.

Overall, the days costing taxpayers the most are the first and last of the Olympics -- $101,160, primarily for opening ceremony, and $85,640 for the last day, mostly for the closing ceremony.

The sporting event costing the single biggest amount during the Olympics is the gold-medal men's hockey game. The city bought 20 of the best tickets at $775 each, for a total of $15,500.

Access to the high-value tickets appears to be largely controlled by a powerful three-person committee made up of senior bureaucrats.

Under a new policy just approved last week, the city is limiting tickets to those who are asked to attend protocol events and people who "contributed or are contributing" to city goals such as Vancouver's Green Capital agenda, economic development or to the betterment of local communities.

Coun. Geoff Meggs acknowledged he and every other elected politician in the city will receive tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies. But he said the offer doesn't include spouses, and is for their protocol role as elected politicians. He said other events are being determined by the so-called ticket request approval committee on an as-needed basis and that none of the councillors will get tickets for personal use.

"I think people are worried that politicians are going to take advantage of the Games for personal entertainment as opposed to official functions," he said.

"From a councillor's standpoint, unless you've bought your own tickets with your own dough, you will only get to go to further events if you are assigned by a staff committee to perform an official function with someone visiting the city."

Coun. Suzanne Anton said she believes the ticket allocation committee will make sure the tickets aren't misused.

"I am satisfied with the process," said Anton, the lone Non-Partisan Association councillor. "We're all going to be going to the opening ceremonies but we're also on the job as the city's elected officials."

Not all of the tickets bought will be used by city officials. About 40 per cent were allocated to three groups, the Vancouver Economic Development Commission, Tourism Vancouver and a group running the city's two LiveCity celebration sites.

Overall, Meggs said 222 tickets worth about $100,000 are being used for protocol events. The cost of some of the other tickets will be recovered from the other programs, he said.

Tourism Vancouver will pay the city $67,495 for 265 tickets, and the economic development commission will get enough tickets to send 50 "highly vetted" business partners to a single event, he said.

The LiveCity program will distribute 94 tickets worth $9,910 through a lottery or contest.