POLITICS

Andrea Horwath: Tim Hudak, Ontario Tories Put Own Interests First In Housing Controversy

09/06/2013 10:36 EDT | Updated 11/06/2013 05:12 EST
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TORONTO - Toronto-area Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman apologized Friday for suggesting a $112,000 salary wasn't a lot of money, but insisted he was honest and followed the rules when he collected a housing allowance of $20,719 a year for a home in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

"I'm used to making money and I'm used to being honest, and I was honest, but I also treated money in a way that was rather cavalier, so I apologize for that," Shurman told Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010.

Shurman, the PC's finance critic, said he and Opposition Leader Tim Hudak agreed the Thornhill MPP should stop collecting the housing allowance while the rules are reviewed, and pay for his own rental space in Toronto.

"We've decided that, with discretion being the better part of valour, to say pending any rule change I'm going to cease and desist receiving this accommodation allowance because that is an appropriate response to what was obviously a public outcry," he told host John Tory, Hudak's predecessor as Ontario PC leader.

"I will pay it and I will pay it gladly to avoid the invective that's been hurled at me."

The governing Liberals and the New Democrats accused Shurman of exploiting a loophole in the accommodation allowance for MPPs who live more than 50 kilometres from the legislature in downtown Toronto to fund a Niagara retirement home.

The home was indeed for their retirement when he and wife Carol bought it in 2008, said Shurman, they soon realized they wanted to live there full time and he would pay rent for housing for his work in Toronto.

"Things changed and it ceased to be, in our mind, a retirement home," he said. "We decided that's what we want to live in, and that is our principal and indeed our only residence."

Shurman also confirmed that he did inform PC Leader Tim Hudak when he changed his primary residence and started collecting the housing allowance.

"(Hudak) acknowledged that I had told him, and that this was totally within the bounds of not only reason but legitimacy," he said. "I followed the rules."

Shurman, 65, had refused all other media requests for comment both Thursday and Friday, with his staff saying he was observing the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. His only interview was on the radio station where he used to work, taking questions from his former party leader.

If Hudak approved Shurman's housing allowance claim, "Ontarians will have to decide if that's the kind of leadership that they want to see in the province," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Hudak has to decide whether he wants his party to continue to look like it's only concerned about its own interests, added Horwath. And it's "up to Mr. Shurman and his conscience" to decide whether he should pay back the money.

Tory never asked Shurman about repaying any of the housing allowance he's already collected.

Both the Conservatives and Liberals have asked Speaker Dave Levac to hold a special meeting to examine and change the rules around accommodation allowances.

Liberal house leader John Milloy said the rules should be tightened, arguing only MPPs representing constituencies "a burdensome travel distance" from Queen's Park should be eligible for the accommodation allowance.

Shurman owned a call centre company that he sold in 2003 for about $3 million and worked as a radio talk show host before he was elected in 2007. He earns $116,716 as an MPP, including taxable benefits.

His Niagara-on-the-Lake home is listed as his address in the party's financial documents filed with Elections Ontario as well as the address of his numbered holding company.

According to government records, Shurman owns a private 1979 F33A Beech Bonanza airplane through the numbered company.

Questions about the living allowance rules at Queen's Park come amid an expense scandal in Canada's Senate.

The RCMP is looking into the questionable expenses of senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — who are no longer members of the federal Tory caucus — as well as former Liberal Mac Harb, who resigned amid the scandal.

It's alleged that Duffy, Brazeau and Harb improperly stated their primary residences to take claim tens of thousands of dollars a year in living allowances.

Senate rules require its members to have a primary residence in the province they represent. If it's more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa, they can claim a housing allowance of up to $22,000 a year.

The rules in the Ontario legislature are more lax, allowing MPPs to claim up to $20,719 if their primary residence — which doesn't have to be in their riding — is more than 50 kilometres from the legislature.

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