International Development Minister Bev Oda has reimbursed taxpayers $1,353.81 after revelations about a lavish hotel stay and luxury transportation in London, England prompted controversy on Parliament Hill Monday.
Oda made the repayment Monday morning, according to her office, after documents obtained by the Canadian Press showed she refused to stay at a five-star hotel last June and had her staff rebook her at the swanky Savoy hotel for more than double the cost.
Her office said she followed all Treasury Board guidelines and that when she travels Oda considers "the most appropriate, cost-effective accommodations."
What rules govern ministerial travel?
Although the policies for ministers' offices suggest ministers "refer" to the government's travel directive, in fact it does not appear that any Treasury Board rules govern ministerial travel specifically.
The travel directive suggests a maximum hotel charge for London, England not exceed $319.
All ministerial travel abroad must be pre-approved by the prime minister's office, but it's not clear whether specific costs would require approval.
Even though Oda's office said she broke no rules, she is now personally picking up the tab for "the portion of the expenses in question."
Those expenses include the difference in cost between the two hotels, the cancellation fee, and a costly bottle of orange juice.
"The minister wanted to make sure taxpayers did not pay the costs for the decision to change hotels," Justin Broekema said in an email.
Oda was originally supposed to stay at the Grange St. Paul's Hotel, the site of the conference on international immunizations she was in London to attend. The Savoy is two kilometres away and Oda hired a car and driver to shuttle her between the hotels and around London over her three-day stay.
A note on one of the expense forms said the minister preferred not to stay at the Grange St. Paul's but it's not clear why and Oda was not on Parliament Hill Monday to answer questions.
In an interview with CHEX TV in Durham, Ont., Oda dismissed a question on why she changed hotels.
"I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue here is that the taxpayer is not paying for a decison to change hotels," she said.
Oda said she has "nothing to be embarrassed about" and that ministers have a responsibility to represent the country well while abroad. She also said the criticism from the opposition parties over her travel bill was "extremist."
The bill for the three-night stay at the Savoy was $1,995 or $665 per night, and the pricetag for the chaffeur service was $2,850, according to the Canadian Press. On the first day of the conference, the Canadian government paid for the car to be on call for 15 hours.
She also expensed a bottle of orange juice from the mini-bar at the Savoy that cost $16.
News of Oda's lavish hotel stay comes in the wake of last month's budget that saw cuts to her department, the Canadian International Development Agency, in the range of $380 million.
Opposition calls hotel stay 'offensive'
NDP House leader Nathan Cullen, who called Oda's stay at the Savoy "offensive," was asked if it could at all be justified.
"I suppose if you're in a high-flying rock band, but as a minister who is meant to be engaging with the world's most poor, most needy, and coming from a government who is demanding that Canadians tighten their own belts, the hypocrisy is reeking," he told reporters.
Cullen said apparently five-star hotels aren't good enough for Oda and that she should start acting like a minister who believes in her own file. The world's poor need proper attention, "not high-flying aristocracy," he said.
In question period, the NDP's ethics critic Charlie Angus demanded an apology from the government and said Oda is "living like a queen" off the backs of taxpayers.
Liberal MP Scott Andrews accused Oda of living like a millionaire at taxpayers' expense. Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan responded that the government respects taxpayer dollars and expects ministers to do so the same.
"That is why the minister in question has repaid the expenditures in question," he said.
This is not the first time Oda has had to answer critics over travel expenses.
In 2006, she used limousines to ferry her to and from the Juno Awards ceremony in Halifax, racking up $5,475 in bills. When the expenses were criticized in the House of Commons, she said she had reimbursed the taxpayer $2,200 of the bill.
A year later, Oda billed taxpayers more than $1,200 for another limousine ride that took her to both a government event and a party activity. The NDP cried foul when those expenses were not spelled out in the government's public disclosures.