Federal Tourism Minister Diane Ablonczy has given up responsibility for overseeing a major stimulus fund that sparked controversy in Conservative Party ranks after it gave $400,000 to a Toronto gay pride celebration in mid-June.
Conservative MP Brad Trost, a critic of the Pride Week grant, is suggesting that the Harper government stripped Ms. Ablonczy of responsibility for the fund as a punishment.
He implied in an interview with LifeSiteNews.com, a socially conservative news service, that Ms. Ablonczy lost control of the $100-million Marquee Tourism Events Program because the gay pride grant embarrassed the Tories.
The Harper government, however, denies Ms. Ablonczy has been punished, saying it was always expected that she would eventually relinquish control of the program to Industry Minister Tony Clement. "She remains the Minister for Small Business and Tourism," said Darren Cunningham, Mr. Clement's director of communications.
Mr. Trost's comments have created a political dilemma for the Tories, who strive to portray themselves as moderates on social issues to Ontario and Quebec voters. Two other gay pride events have applied for funding from the Marquee program. If Ottawa funds these, it will anger social conservatives within Tory ranks; if it rejects the applications - even for valid reasons such as failing grant criteria - it will be accused of caving to criticism.
Mr. Cunningham said control over the program - part of Ottawa's economic stimulus package - shifted to Mr. Clement at some point "two or three weeks ago." The Industry Minister was busy with efforts such as the auto sector bailout earlier this year, but "we're better able to handle the workload right now."
Mr. Cunningham said Mr. Trost's opinion can't be dismissed but that ultimately the decision is made based on how best to spur tourism activity.
"I do understand Mr. Trost's concerns. The concerns that he raises are the concerns of a lot of Canadians. ... At the same time, the measure that we look at is tourism," he said.
Mr. Trost declined to return phone calls yesterday, and his office referred reporters to Mr. Clement. John-Henry Westen, an editor at LifeSiteNews.com, stood by his outlet's story.
Mr. Trost said in the July 6 story that "almost the entire Conservative caucus," including "most of the Prime Minister's Office were taken by surprise" when Ms. Ablonczy announced on June 15 that the Marquee fund would help Toronto's June gay pride week.
"The pro-life and the pro-family community should know and understand that the tourism funding money that went to the gay pride parade in Toronto was not government policy, was not supported by - I think it's safe to say by a large majority - of the MPs," he told LifeSiteNews.
Mr. Trost said the funding was "a very isolated decision" and that "most of the caucus is still strongly pro-traditional marriage."
He suggested Ms. Ablonczy had been reprimanded even though there was no "official connection" between her shift in duties and the grant. "It should be noted that the file has been reassigned to a different cabinet minister since that announcement was made."
Toronto-area Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Tories are only hurting themselves. "That you would even question a grant to the city of Toronto for an event that attracts a million people - at a time when Toronto needs help in terms of tourism and economic development ... this is 2009. These people better get with it."