04/25/2012 05:39 EDT | Updated 06/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Travel Rules For Ministers About As Cushy As The Five-Star Hotel Beds

OTTAWA - Travel rules that apply to federal ministers appear to be about as firm — and as fat-conscious — as the clotted cream on the scones at London's swishy Savoy Hotel.

The office of Bev Oda says the international co-operation minister "followed the appropriate guidelines" when she upgraded from one five-star hotel in London, England, to the Savoy for more than double the cost last June.

Oda also hired a luxury car and driver to shuttle her around for an average of nearly $1,000 a day.

Treasury Board Secretariat's "Policies for Ministers' Offices," revised in January 2011, says ministers are not subject to government-wide rules for travel, laid out by the Public Service Commission's national joint council.

And the travel policy nowhere specifically states that ministers should seek out the most cost-effective accommodations, flights or meals.

"Although ministers are excluded from the requirement to follow the National Joint Council Travel Directive, it is recommended that ministers refer to that document, since it provides good examples of expenditures that are considered appropriate for program-related business travel," says the policy.

The rest of the guidelines deal largely with the administrative side of travel, such as how to submit paperwork and whether frequent-flyer points can be collected.

Political staffers and departmental executives, however, are subject to the travel directive, which spells out dozens of rules covering issues such as the purchase of bottled water and staying at a private residence (a preferred option when possible, according to the document).

First-class travel has been forbidden for everyone since 1992, although there are some exceptions to that rule. And a minister can upgrade his or her political staff to business class with a stroke of a pen.

Although Oda didn't break any of those Treasury Board guidelines for ministers, it appears the government felt she did break a covenant with the taxpayer.

She apologized "unreservedly" this week for the hotel switch, calling it "unacceptable" and repaying a portion of the expenses.

But the opposition continued to hammer the Conservatives on the issue, pointing out she has not repaid any fees associated with the car and driver. The hotel Oda was supposed to stay at, the Grange St. Paul's, was the site of the conference on international immunizations she was attending.

"This is a minister who was found in contempt of the Canadian Parliament, a minister who has racked up thousands of dollars in frivolous bills, a minister who tells hard-working Canadians that 'I'm sorry, a five-star hotel just isn't posh enough for me,'" said New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus.

"So if she will not answer, I will ask the man in charge. When he has an ethically challenged minister, what does she have to do in order to get kicked out of his Cadillac cabinet?"

Tory House Leader Peter Van Loan said his government had reduced ministerial travel expenses by 15 per cent compared with what the previous Liberal government was spending prior to 2006.

"In terms of accountability, the minister has been fully accountable, was accountable in this House and has repaid all inappropriate expenses," said Van Loan.

"The important consideration for all taxpayers is that the government is interested in seeing that taxpayer dollars are respected and managed carefully."

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