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Conservatives swept up in political storm over doctored document

Opposition parties are calling for the head of cabinet minister Bev Oda after she changed her story about a doctored document, saying it’s just the latest example of the Tory government’s “culture of deceit.”

One of Canada’s top parliamentary scholars also says Oda must resign, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is standing by his embattled international development minister, dismissing charges that she misled Parliament.

Oda is on the hot seat after finally admitting Monday that she directed an already-signed document to be crudely altered by adding a single hand-written word — “not.” The change killed $7 million in funding to the multi-faith foreign-aid group KAIROS.

“This is forgery, period,” Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said Tuesday.

Harper steadfastly defended Oda in the House of Commons, while ignoring questions about the ethics of document tampering and his government’s year-long record of shifting explanations of why it cancelled the KAIROS funding.

Funding decisions, said Harper, are “not the decision of appointed officials … not the entitlement of outside organizations.”

“It is a decision of the minister to make sure that taxpayers’ dollars are used effectively for foreign aid. And that is what she has done.”

Oda, seated in the Commons wearing dark glasses, did not respond to a single opposition question.

While the NDP and Bloc Quebecois repeatedly demanded that Oda be fired, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said responsibility for her behaviour rests with the prime minister.

“This doesn’t end with Bev Oda. This has to do with Mr. Harper,” Rae said.

He called it “a sign of all that’s taking place inside the Harper government.”

Oda’s statement Monday in the Commons was just the latest explanation of why KAIROS lost its federal funding in 2009.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told an Israeli audience in December 2009 it was because KAIROS supported Palestinian groups critical of Israel.

Oda and others later said that was not so, clearly indicating the decision was made by bureaucrats after reviewing the funding request and finding it not in line with government criteria.

However, that too was later disproven, as testimony and documents from senior officials at the Canadian International Development Agency showed the funding request was actually recommended for approval — before the infamous “not” was added.

The explanation bears a striking resemblance to the decision to kill the mandatory long-form census, after which the Conservatives falsely claimed Statistics Canada officials recommended the change. Canada’s chief statistician quit in protest.

No one is disputing Oda’s ministerial authority to overrule advice from her officials. But it took almost a year for the minister to admit what happened.

Harper and his House leader, John Baird, trumpeted this long-delayed admission by Oda as a sign of transparency, accountability and clarity. They completely ignored questions about her admitted document tampering.

In December, Oda repeatedly told an incredulous Commons committee that she had no idea who’d hand-written the word “NOT” in block letters into the final sentence of the KAIROS funding approval. Nonetheless, said Oda, the alteration reflected her own decision on the matter.

On Monday, Oda changed her tune: “My instructions were to indicate on the document my decision not to provide funding,” she told the House, without explaining who she instructed or when the order was made.

Oda had previously been unable to say even whether the “not” was added before or after her signature went on the document.

Opposition MPs suspect Oda approved the funding and signed for it, but was overruled by the Prime Minister’s Office. They suggest the document may have been altered after the fact to conform with the new decision.

Regardless, Oda has confirmed the document was altered over the signatures of two senior bureaucrats who have testified they recommended the KAIROS funding request and signed an unamended approval document.

Ned Franks, one of Canada’s leading scholars in parliamentary procedure, said Oda must resign.

“There is no excuse for what she did,” he said in a release from Queen’s University, where he is a professor emeritus.

“She altered a document to misrepresent a recommendation — and then she claimed she hadn’t done it. Those are two of the worst offences a minister can do.”

Commons Speaker Peter Milliken — who has already ruled that the document tampering is cause for observers to “be extremely concerned, if not shocked” — has been asked to take another look at the Oda case.

The foreign affairs committee voted to send a report to Milliken asking him to decide if the minister violated parliamentary privilege in her handling of the KAIROS decision.

But the eye-glazing machinery of parliamentary process is not what the story is really about, said Rae.

“It’s not a process issue,” said Rae. “It’s an issue about the character of this government. Everybody understands that.

“It’s about a government that has great difficulty telling the truth. It’s about a government that conceals information and hides facts.”

The demands for Oda’s resignation coincided Wednesday with testimony from Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, who told the finance committee MPs are losing their ability to do their jobs because they’re starved of basic information.

“There is a genuine concern that Parliament is losing control of its fiduciary responsibilities of approving financial authorities of public monies as afforded in the Constitution,” said Page.

Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, joined Rae in excoriating the Harper government, noting information is being suppressed and independent watchdogs are either fired, attacked or starved of authority.

That “culture of deceit,” said Rae, includes misrepresenting the advice of civil servants to avoid taking responsibility for controversial decisions such as KAIROS.