POLITICS

Embattled Bev Oda quits politics and triggers shuffle speculation

07/03/2012 01:06 EDT | Updated 09/02/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - As one door swings shut on an embattled cabinet minister's political career, another opens for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda's resignation Tuesday gives the prime minister the space he needs for a cabinet shuffle this summer.

While regional and gender sensibilities are always at play when Harper decides to move around his ministers, he's often hamstrung by political sensibilities demanding he not appear to be busting loyal captains down to the rank of private.

Even captains like Bev Oda.

Her spending habits became national water-cooler talk earlier this year after The Canadian Press revealed she had rejected one five-star hotel in London for another more luxurious establishment at more than double the cost.

She had also hired a luxury car and driver for an average of $1,000 per day. Details of her expenses were obtained via the Access to Information Act.

The revelations sparked an intense week of criticism in the Commons and on the doorsteps. Oda repaid the difference in rooms, the limousine service, and the cost of a $16 glass of orange juice.

While there were calls for her to be moved out of cabinet in the summer shuffle, her resignation allows Harper to avoid being seen as punishing her for mistakes that were in danger of giving his caucus a permanent black eye.

Oda advised the prime minister two weeks ago that she was stepping down. Her departure will force the prime minister to call a byelection in the suburban Toronto riding of Durham within six months.

She did not say why she was resigning and her office said Oda was not available for comment.

"As the minister for international co-operation, I have had the opportunity to witness the hardships of the world's most vulnerable peoples and have witnessed the great compassion of Canadians for those in need," Oda said in a statement posted on her website.

"I am grateful for the support of my staff and colleagues in the House of Commons and Senate. I wish to express my appreciation to the prime minister and his cabinet for their outstanding leadership."

Harper returned the sentiment in his own statement.

"Bev has made a significant contribution to her riding, her province and her country since her election to Parliament in 2004," Harper said.

"Under Bev's guidance, Canada has led a significant initiative to save the lives of mothers, children and newborns in the developing world...Through Bev's leadership, Canada has also met, ahead of schedule, its commitment to double aid to Africa.

"This is a record of which to be proud."

Oda's resignation is effective at the end of July, fuelling greater speculation that a shuffle could take place in August.

End-of-session resignations from caucus prompted two minor cabinet shuffles in 2007 and 2010. Opinions are split as to whether the coming change will be a gentle jiggling of responsibilities or a full scale sweep.

The name most often bandied about to replace Oda has been Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan turned politician who has distinguished himself as parliamentary secretary to the minister of defence.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis shrugged when asked Tuesday about the possibility of a shuffle.

"It's the prerogative of the prime minister," he said.

Paradis wouldn't comment on whether Oda's departure can stop the criticism being heaped on the government for lavish spending.

But the Opposition said the Tories were crazy if they though it was over.

"If Stephen Harper thinks a single resignation or a cabinet shuffle will make his ethics problems go away, he is sorely mistaken," said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice.

"The Conservatives were elected on a white horse of accountability but since taking office they have become precisely what they used to criticize."

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimated that her annual pension will instantly start at $52,183, adding up to $701,464 by the time she reaches the age of 80.

“Bev Oda’s lifetime pension should cover about 43,841 glasses of $16 orange juice,” said Derek Fildebrandt, the federation's national research director.

Some questions about Oda's spending habits abroad have yet to be resolved. Records show that Oda modified the amounts related to expenses on a number of recent trips, but has refused to reveal why those figures were changed.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has been inundated with access to information requests in the past few months.

Oda faced another major controversy at CIDA, when aid organization Kairos was turned down for government funding in 2009. Oda originally said in 2010 the agency did not approve funding because Kairos' proposals did not meet the government's standards.

But Oda was later forced to apologize to the House of Commons when a document turned up showing that CIDA officials had actually green-lighted the funding, but she had the word "not" inserted into the approval form.

The Speaker of the Commons, Peter Milliken, had called the incident "troubling."

Oda was previously the minister of Canadian heritage and of the status of women. At Status of Women Canada, she oversaw the overhauling of the terms and conditions of the women's program, removing advocacy and research from work eligible for funding — in favour of more service-oriented projects.