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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers an update on federal stimulus spending at a town-hall meeting in Cambridge, Ont., on June 11, 2009 (DAVE CHIDLEY)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers an update on federal stimulus spending at a town-hall meeting in Cambridge, Ont., on June 11, 2009 (DAVE CHIDLEY)

Tories spent $108,000 on fiscal update town hall Add to ...

The Harper government spent over $100,000 staging a one-hour event in June to deliver an update on its efforts to help the recession-ravaged economy.

Invoices obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act show a nominal bill to taxpayers of $108,000 for the carefully scripted "town hall" meeting in Cambridge, Ont.

The June 11 event turned what the opposition Liberals had hoped would be an uncomfortable exercise in government transparency into a slick campaign-style rally for Conservative party faithful.

Critics say it's just the latest example of what they're calling a Tory penchant for leveraging public money for partisan gain.

"It fits in with a whole pattern with this government where they are basically using tax dollars to promote themselves to voters," said Gerry Nicholls of the right-wing web portal Libertaspost.com.

"That's clearly wrong. It's clearly a waste of tax dollars."

The Cambridge event provided the second of the four reports the Liberals demanded last January as the price of their support for the recession-fighting federal budget.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the Liberal challenge and ran with it, transforming what could have been a dry accounting exercise in the House of Commons into a major audio-visual road show.

"I don't see why they couldn't have done this in the normal way and presented this report in Parliament, in which case it wouldn't have cost anything at all," said Liberal finance critic John McCallum.

Harper staged another splashy release late last month - riding into the event in Saint John, N.B., on the front of locomotive - and has a final economic report card due in December.

The contested "80 per cent already being implemented" slogan from the June update headlined the government's Economic Action Plan website all summer, but has since been replaced with a photo of Harper in front of the locomotive in Saint John.

Mr. Harper's officials have not yet said where the final report will be delivered, but they are defending the prime minister's right to spend tax dollars on taking his message to voters where they live.

"The prime minister has a responsibility to travel across the country and, despite what Ottawa media think, Canada is a lot bigger than Ottawa and part of the prime minister's job is to visit Canadians in all parts of the country," Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said Sunday.

Copies of invoices obtained by The Canadian Press reveal that the June 11 show did not come cheaply for taxpayers.

Some $30,000 was spent on audio visual equipment and staging, another $10,000 was spent buying the rights to use photos and web images and almost $50,000 went toward printing glossy copies of a 234-page Economic Action Plan "report card."

Another $5,700 went to an outside editing service and more than $3,300 was spent on a communications firm.

Almost $10,000 was spent on airfare, ground transport and hotels for some 20 individuals who flew in from Ottawa, not including their meal expenses.

Those costs didn't include expenses for Senator Mike Duffy, who hosted the show and led a question-and-answer session with the 300 invited guests. No media questions were permitted at the event.

The invoices don't cover the cost of the use by Harper and his staff of the government's Challenger jet to get to Cambridge, about an hour's flight from Ottawa. In opposition, Harper and other Conservatives repeatedly said the jets cost about $11,000 an hour to operate.

While the Tories portray the "report card" events as exercises in accountability, the government has come under fire for its less-than-complete reporting of stimulus and infrastructure measures.

The independent Parliamentary Budget Office issued a report 10 days ago that said the government has been so stingy with details that it's impossible to tell whether the measures have had any economic impact.

Transport and Infrastructure Minister John Baird has dismissed comparisons between the Canadian government's web information and the far more detailed - and far more expensive - U.S. version.

"We'd rather spend the money on actual construction," he said.

Mr. McCallum said the response was indicative of "twisted priorities."

"It's OK to spend taxpayers' money to generate Conservative positive images but it's a waste of money to spend on getting information out to Canadians," said the Liberal critic.

Thomas Mulcair, the NDP finance critic, called the $100,000 road show "scandalous."

And like a number of other critics, he began drawing comparisons between the current government promotional binge and the sponsorship scandal that brought down the previous Liberal government.

"If you go back to Judge Gomery's report (on sponsorship), the No. 1 thing that he says is these guys get to a point where they simply don't see the difference anymore between government money and party money," said Mr. Mulcair.

"That's exactly where the Conservatives are sitting right now."

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