Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Rona Ambrose received top billing for a Conservative Party fundraiser in Whitehorse Tuesday evening.
Earlier that day, the Conservative Party MP pledged millions for aboriginal mine training to the Yukon on behalf of Human Resources and Social Development Minister Monte Solberg. Ambrose also met with Premier Dennis Fentie.
Which events were scheduled first is unclear.
But it is clear taxpayers paid for Ambrose’s trip.
The Yukon Conservative Association fundraising dinner — $80 a plate at the Mountain View Golf Course — has been advertised since mid-June.
The events are separate, said Ambrose, when asked about fundraising for a political party while on government business.
“I’m here as the Intergovernmental Affairs minister working on behalf of the people of Canada and, in my off time, I’m going to a barbecue with some local supporters,” said Ambrose.
“I think that’s perfectly appropriate and I’m looking forward to meeting Yukoners.”
The event is a barbecue with locals, not a fundraiser, said Ambrose, who is also minister of Western Economic Diversification.
So a newspaper ad about the fundraiser was produced.
“Hon. Rona Ambrose Campaign Fundraising Dinner,” it said under the Conservative Party logo.
The ad featured a picture of Ambrose and Yukon Conservative candidate Darrell Pasloski.
Ambrose expressed surprise the event was billed as a fundraiser.
“How much are tickets?” she said.
According to the ad, tickets are $80.
“How much money would that raise anyway?” she said.
Ambrose’s handlers then whisked her away.
The party sold 97 tickets to the event by Tuesday afternoon, according to organizers.
The party raised about $8,000, not including personal donations gathered from dinner guests.
Last year, the local association raised more than $40,000 for Pasloski’s federal campaign. This year it expects to raise more.
A recent investigation by the Toronto Star “easily found 25 examples of Tory ministers mixing fundraising and department business.”
Trips can cost several thousand dollars.
Ambrose previously spent more than $7,000 on two four-day trips for government business.
Ministerial staff also spend thousands of dollars on the trips.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Duff Conacher, a co-ordinator with Democracy Watch, a leading national advocacy group.
“There isn’t a problem if it’s a legitimate announcement, and the party is paying for all the expenses of what she did for the party.”
But determining just what constitutes a legitimate announcement and if it was scheduled after the fundraiser is difficult, if not impossible.
“It’s difficult to police,” said Canadian Taxpayers Federation national director John Williamson.
“It raises questions about what came first — if entire trips were created around a fundraiser, or it was a fortunate coincidence.”
As in the local Ambrose case, fundraisers attended by ministers like Peter MacKay or Gary Lunn were usually advertised one month in advance, according to the Toronto Star.
Staff could not provide exact dates on when meetings with Fentie and the government announcement were confirmed.
Ministers should not be combining partisan politics with official Ottawa business, said Conacher.
“There is no ‘offtime’ when you’re a minister,” said Duff in an interview.
“You don’t take off that hat.”
In 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin introduced measures requiring the public disclosure of ministerial travel and hospitality expenses.
The disclosures can be found on departmental websites.
But lack of serious accountability legislation still allows for the abuse and waste of public money, said Conacher.
Conservative ministers aren’t the only ones that play fast and loose with the rules.
Opposition MPs, during the past four years of minority government, voted in and maintained legislation granting them 25 trips anywhere in Canada for any reason.
That’s in addition to their regular constituency travel.
“Instead of reining in the government for abusing their ability to travel and to party business at the same time, the opposition parities gave themselves some gravy too,” said Conacher.
Often, these trips are used by high-profile Liberal MPs, such as former NHL star Ken Dryden and former leadership contender Michael Ignatieff, for fundraising.
“The taxpayers are paying for party fundraising,” said Conacher.
“The lack of regulation allows the abuse. The only reason to travel is to develop public policy.”
And unlike Tory ministers, the opposition does not publicly disclose expenses for the 25 trips.
“We don’t know where the trips are going or who is using the tickets,” said Williamson.
“As we saw with (former minister) Maxime Bernier, family can be extended pretty broadly.”
Again, like ministers fundraising on government business, MPs might have genuine reasons for the trips.
But it’s tough to tell.
The only way to determine if announcements are legitimate is to legislate the auditor general to audit ministerial and MP offices, said Conacher.
“It will bring some accountability to it and they won’t try it as much,” he said.
“That’s the best we can do because they can always make up an excuse for an announcement.”
Parliament should look at forcing political parties to share costs of trips if ministers are fundraising, said Williamson.
“It’s clear taxpayers are paying for trips benefiting political parties,” he said.
When a government writes its own rules, it’s a struggle to change accountability practices.
There’s a better chance that anyone in Canada will be caught illegally parking and pay a fine than a minister or MP getting caught misspending public money, said Conacher.
And there are no fines for the misappropriation.
“That’s how perverse it is,” he said.
“There are more inspectors running around checking vehicles than there are watching cabinet ministers or MPs.”
See related story online.