In its zeal to deflect attention from the Senate expenses scandal, the Harper government managed Thursday to antagonize some of Canada's most prominent arts and culture luminaries.

This year's winners of the Governor General's performing arts awards were in the gallery of the House of Commons as Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore fended off opposition queries about Sen. Mike Duffy's invalid expense claims.

Adopting the strategy that the best defence is a good offence, Moore deflected most questions by raising instances of alleged ethical lapses by various NDP and Liberal parliamentarians.

Some of the award-winning artists walked out of the chamber after Moore launched a blistering attack on New Democrat MP Tyrone Benskin, a former actor.

Moore, who was standing in for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accused Benskin of having introduced a private member's bill specifically to help himself avoid paying back taxes.

"His first act and only act in this Parliament, legislatively, is to try to pass a bill to absolve himself of his own tax liability," Moore charged.

"That is NDP corruption."

Benskin, a Montreal MP and former actor, has admitted failing to pay almost $60,000 in provincial income taxes. He has said he intends to pay back "every last cent."

Benskin's bill, which was defeated last fall, would have allowed artists to average their income over a period of years to avoid high taxation in years when they do well.

Award honouree 'very insulted,' 'hurt'

Actor Eric Peterson, winner of one of this year's lifetime achievement awards, was among the artists who walked out of the chamber in disgust.

To cast aspersions against Benskin was bad enough, Peterson said outside the Commons. But "to have the nerve or the insensitivity or just the disdain" to disparage Benskin's income averaging bill was too much to bear.

"I felt very insulted by that," Peterson said, noting that artists' incomes vary widely from year to year.

"I was led to believe I was to be introduced in the House of Commons and I was to be congratulated for what I've done, instead of sitting there and to be insulted by this incredibly insensitive remark about artists in general and about a particular artist and colleague of mine in particular.

"I just got up and left ... I felt very slighted and hurt by it."

Peterson was particularly dumbfounded that such remarks came from the minister responsible for Canadian arts and culture. He said Moore appears to believe his job is "to protect corporations and the taxpayer from the rapacious demands of artists."

When NDP House leader Nathan Cullen pointed out that the artists in the gallery likely didn't appreciate Moore's remarks, the minister launched into a defence of the government's record on arts and culture before returning to bashing Benskin.

"What is appalling is New Democrats putting forward a bill of artists' resale rights, pretending to stand up for artists when all they are doing is standing up for their right to avoid paying taxes," Moore said.

Liberal MP Bob Rae came to Benskin's defence, calling Moore's broadside "one of the nastiest attacks from an individual in the House."

Moore attended a "great" reception for the award-winning artists after question period and said on Twitter that he spoke to each of them.

The minister didn't back down on his argument though, adding in a series of tweets that artists aren't the only ones who could benefit from income-averaging and suggesting it wouldn't be fair to implement it for artists but not other people whose incomes can fluctuate wildly from year to year, citing real estate or insurance agents and seasonal workers as examples.

"Avoiding paying taxes & proposing this bill in that context is outrageous," Moore wrote in one tweet.

with files from CBC News