One gaffe too many: prime minister's patience peters out for Oda's opulent tastes | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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One gaffe too many: prime minister's patience peters out for Oda's opulent tastes

Conservative Minister Bev Oda has a cigarette break at the back of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in this Feb. 16, 2011 file photo. Bev Oda's background made her looked great as a candidate on paper. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Bev Oda's background made her looked great as a candidate on paper: an accomplished former broadcast executive, industry regulator and a popular MP who won her riding by impressive margins.

But within only a few scant months of appointing her to cabinet, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got an inkling of the weaknesses that would trip her up for years.

Oda, who announced she was stepping down on Tuesday, turned into a serial stumbler when it came to the use of the public purse and issues of perception — long before the famous stay at the Savoy Hotel.

Her awkward communications skills merely compounded the problem. Oda, 67, was never entirely comfortable in the Commons or in front of the cameras.

Oda had worked at TVOntario, Citytv and CTV in behind-the-scenes executive positions before moving on to become a commissioner at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

She entered politics by wresting the suburban Toronto riding of Durham from the Liberals in 2004 and was rewarded with increased pluralities in subsequent elections. She found herself appointed to Harper's first cabinet in 2006 and quickly landed in her first controversy: the newly appointed Heritage minister allowed a broadcasting executive to organize and advertise a fundraiser, even though she now oversaw policies that affected the industry.

Only after the media and the NDP raised the apparent conflict of interest did Oda pull out of the event and the cheques were returned to donors. The gaffe happened at the same time as the Conservatives were pushing through the Federal Accountability Act.

It took a mere four months for Oda to find herself back in the hotseat — this time for racking up $5,500 in limousine fees while attending the Juno Awards in Halifax. She reimbursed roughly half the fees that she said weren't related to her ministerial duties.

At the same time, Oda was also facing criticism in the Commons for changes at Status of Women Canada — another agency she oversaw. Regional offices were shut down, the word "equality" was suddenly stricken from key documents, and advocacy and research projects made ineligible for funding.

Problems followed Oda to the next portfolio at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), an agency that was losing funding and rankling aid groups because of changes to its funding priorities.

Oda ignited a firestorm over funding to the organization Kairos when she ruled the group did not meet the standards required to receive government money in 2009. But a document from within the department showed that officials had actually approved it. The word "not" had mysteriously been written on the approval document. Oda initially told a Commons committee she didn't know how it got there.

It wasn't until she was accused of misleading Parliament that Oda admitted in early 2011 that she had directed the word be inserted onto the page.

"My original answers were truthful, accurate and precise but they were not clear... At no time would I ever intend to mislead anyone," Oda told a Commons committee.

Harper stood by Oda throughout the long list of controversies, ignoring calls for her resignation. Some appreciated her contribution to CIDA.

"She was actually good at her day job," Scott Gilmore, executive director of Peace Dividend Trust, tweeted Tuesday. Gilmore said she bolstered the role of business in helping the poor in other countries, focused aid policy on priority countries and improved accountability, he said.

But when The Canadian Press reported in April that Oda had rejected one five-star hotel in London to stay at the ultra-luxurious Savoy at more than double the cost in June 2011, the prime minister's patience seemed to seep away.

Once again, Oda had racked up bills for a luxury car and driver to the tune of $1,000 per day — this time because she had opted not to stay at the hotel where the international conference on immunizations had been held.

And there was that $16 glass of orange juice that suddenly became a symbol of entitlement and government excess, akin to the pack of gum that former Liberal cabinet minister David Dingwall famously billed as head of the Royal Canadian Mint during the Chretien years.

Oda waited a day before apologizing publicly.

"Mr. Speaker, the expenses are unacceptable, should never have been charged to taxpayers, I have repaid the costs associated with the changing of hotels and I unreservedly apologize," Oda said.

Oda resisted pressure to pay back the car and driver for another two days.

Conservative MPs began to grumble privately that their constituents were complaining about Oda's spending habits. The CIDA minister had become something of a political liability and there was the possibility that more embarrassing information would emerge.

Officials have been inundated with access to information requests at CIDA. Last month, the CBC noticed that e that some of the totals on Oda's expenses had been modified. Oda would not explain the changes, leaving more information to come out later through the release of documents.

"I think she really touched a chord with people. People are fundamentally offended by this sense of entitlement," said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who went up against Oda many times in the Commons.

"I think they also understood that it was wrong that the prime minister never called her to account. If you did that in the private sector you'd be fired, but Bev Oda seemed to be Teflon when it came to serial abuse of taxpayers trust."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2012
The Canadian Press

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