04/18/2016 06:54 EDT | Updated 04/18/2016 08:22 EDT

Chrystia Freeland Billed Taxpayers For Hollywood 'Vanity' Trip, Tories Allege

She made a splash on "Real Time with Bill Maher" in November.

Conservatives have accused Canada's trade minister of living out a "California dream" and making taxpayers pick up the tab.

But Liberals say International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was just doing her job.

Three Tory MPs rose in question period Monday to charge that Freeland spent nearly $20,000 on a trip to and from Manila, Philippines to Los Angeles, and then back home to Canada in November, just to appear on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher."

A Liberal spokesperson says that Freeland was actually in L.A. on a trade mission, meeting with business leaders, and that her TV appearance was just one part of the trip. The total cost, including expenses for a staffer, was about $14,000.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Tory MP Blaine Calkins kicked things off in the House of Commons by noting that Freeland had a seat reserved on the government plane returning from the APEC Summit in Manila on Nov. 19, but she booked the trip to L.A. instead.

"And the reason? A vanity interview," he said. "While the interview with Bill Maher was painful to watch, it turns out it was just as painful for Canadian taxpayers."

David Lametti, Freeland's parliamentary secretary, said that the government was proud of her work "advancing Canadian interests around the world." He noted that all of Freeland's expenses are transparent and comply with ethical guidelines.

Lametti gave much the same answer, moments later, when Calkins asked why Canadians footed the bill for Freeland's first-class tickets and two days in California with a staffer, just so she could be on an "American talk show."

"While the interview with Bill Maher was painful to watch, it turns out it was just as painful for Canadian taxpayers.."

— Tory MP Blaine Calkins

Tory MP Karen Vecchio accused the minister of double-billing by "scarfing down gourmet food" on the plane and then claiming per diems for those same meals. Tory MP Jacques Gourde called the situation "unacceptable," noting Freeland was not in L.A. to negotiate a free trade deal with "Hollywood stars."

Again, Lametti said everything was above board. Freeland's expenses are all "published, public, and transparent," he said.

Alex Lawrence, who serves as Freeland's press secretary, later told The Canadian Press that the minister got stuck in an airport for a day and bought food while waiting for a flight home. As chair of the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations, Freeland has made similar trips to other major U.S. cities, he said.

Freeland, Maher went toe-to-toe

Freeland's appearance on the show aired about a week after the Paris terror attacks. She joined writer Ben Domenech and Maine Senator Angus King on a panel discussing Syrian refugees.

Freeland took on Maher directly for asserting that the values of Muslim refugees, particularly those who hail from nations that practice Sharia law, might be at odds with those in Western society.

"I think it is incredibly important, particularly now, after the Paris attacks, particularly now with ISIL raging around the world, to stand up for real diversity," Freeland said. "And to say our diversity is our strength."

"So, keeping women as second-class citizens is just diversity?" he asked.

Freeland said Canadians won't "persecute" Muslims as worse than any other group.

"Not as people, the ideas are worse," Maher responded.

Freeland, a former journalist, was a guest on the show several times before becoming an MP.

Global News has an edited clip of a memorable exchange:

In a scrum with reporters after question period, Calkins was repeatedly asked why he found Freeland's performance on the show so "painful."

"The reality is if you watch the interview, the interview did not go well at all," he said. "My recollection of it is she was not agreed with by most of the people that were watching the television show but that's not the point. The point is she had no official business there."

But Calkins was seemingly unable to provide specifics, telling reporters to find a clip on YouTube and watch for themselves.

"I don't believe the Canadian taxpayers got value for their money watching her do something that appears to be clearly about her own vanity and getting her own image out there," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press, Catherine Levesque

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