Lee Berthiaume, The Province
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper sidestepped a question Tuesday over whether it was appropriate for his taxpayer-funded office to be distributing documents to media about paid speeches Justin Trudeau made before he was elected to Parliament.
But the issue hounded the Conservatives throughout the day as they faced fresh allegations of blurring the lines between government and partisan activity by using the Prime Minister's Office to launch political attacks on the taxpayer dime.
"I see that as a very inappropriate use of taxpayers' funds," said Conservative-turned-Independent MP Brent Rathgeber.
"If the party mechanism wants to come up with those types of products or engage in that type of purely partisan warfare, that should come from the party machinery, not from the taxpayer-funded PMO."
This came as Liberals and New Democrats continued their game of one-upmanship on the subject of transparency and accountability, with the NDP proposing changes to a secretive House of Commons committee.
The controversy around the PMO started when an Ontario newspaper revealed that the PMO supplied it with documents purporting to show that three organizations that contracted Trudeau to speak at events in 2006 and 2007 ended up losing money.
Trudeau was first elected to Parliament in October 2008. He became federal Liberal leader in April.
The Barrie Advance said the PMO instructed it to attribute the information, which includes invoices and emails from Georgian College, the University of Guelph and a Chatham-Kent business group, to a "source" rather than saying it came from the PMO.
Other newspapers and media outlets have since reported receiving the same documents under the same conditions.
The PMO has also been circulating a letter written by a New Brunswick-based seniors' organization to Trudeau, asking the Liberal leader to reimburse the $20,000 speaking fee he charged the group for an event last year.
On the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, Harper was asked whether it was appropriate for his office and staff, which are both paid for by taxpayers, to be engaging in partisan attacks on opposition members.
Harper didn't answer the question, instead saying that "as someone who is paid by the public, I get good remuneration from the taxpayers.
"As a public servant, I don't think it is appropriate for me to then take money from charity. I give money to charity. I do not take money from charities, and I don't think it is appropriate under those circumstances."
Trudeau's office would not comment, though the Liberal leader has promised to approach the 17 organizations that paid him a total of $277,000 to speak at events since he was elected to Parliament, and "do right" by those who felt his paid appearance wasn't worth it.
This came after Trudeau faced more than a week of criticism and questions about having taken speaker's fees from charitable organizations while serving as a member of Parliament.
A few hours later, the Conservatives said they would be asking the ethics commissioner to investigate if there was a link between Liberal opposition to a union transparency legislation and Trudeau having accepted speaking fees from labour groups.
The commissioner previously cleared Trudeau for all of his speaking engagements while serving as a member of Parliament, and it was unclear whether the Tories' new request would be acted upon.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus accused the Conservative government of not only wasting taxpayer dollars, but also the gift-horse that was Trudeau's public-speaking record as a member of Parliament.
"You had a political gift," he said of the Conservatives. "It was gift-wrapped for you. This was the easiest thing in the world and just out of sheer stupidity, blockheadedness and spite you're blowing it.
"The Conservatives are starting to sound ridiculous on this. The story of Mr. Trudeau's charging outrageous fees to schools spoke for itself. Just leave it at that."
A spokeswoman at the University of Guelph, one of the institutions featured in the documents circulated by the PMO, said there was no intention to ask Trudeau for the $7,500 he was paid to speak in January 2006.
Lori Bona Hunt said the citizenship awareness event at which Trudeau spoke was not a fundraiser, so the intention was not to come out ahead financially.
"It's certainly a non-issue," Bona Hunt said. "We did not ask and we don't plan to ask for Mr. Trudeau to pay back any money."
She could not say how the PMO got the invoice sent to Trudeau's speaking firm or an email that showed how much the event cost, though there were no plans for an investigation.
Canadian Taxpayers' Federation federal director Gregory Thomas said it's an unfortunate reality that taxpayer-funded or not, "the Prime Minister's Office is as political a place in Ottawa as anywhere" and such partisan activity has been going on for decades.
However, he said that doesn't make it right.
"What I think most Canadians hope is happening in the Prime Minister's Office and with their taxpayer dollars is that it is doing work for them and cleaning up the expense problems in the House of Commons and Senate," he said.
"It's possible for the prime minister to refocus his staff in a hurry if he wants to. The prime minister needs to take a long look in the mirror and ask if this is what people voted for."
Meanwhile, the NDP introduced legislation Tuesday to get rid of the Commons' Board of Internal Economy altogether and replace it with an independent oversight body created with input from Canada's auditor general, the House of Commons clerk and chief financial officer.
The NDP is also calling for a study into the best transparency and accountability practices of provincial and territorial legislatures, as well as other countries with similar institutions.
NDP caucus chair Peter Julian said he wants the review completed by Dec. 2, 2013 so that the new body could get to work by the start of the next fiscal year.
The proposals come after the NDP refused to support a Liberal plan to have MPs post office and travel expenses online and to make the board, a secretive House of Commons committee that oversees the spending of members of Parliament, subject to more public scrutiny.
"The reality is, having MPs police themselves doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense," Julian said. "What we really need is an independent oversight body."
The Liberals were expected to re-introduce their own plan on Tuesday but didn't, and now may wait until the fall.
Julian said Trudeau's proposal simply doesn't go far enough, and if he was serious, he would have consulted with other parties before introducing his plan.
- With files from Tobi Cohen
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