Washington, DC - Far be it for an American to offer a defense for a disgraced Canadian, but there is a touch of “kicking someone who is down” with the piling on commentary following Oda’s “retirement” on 3 July. Essentially, she jumped before being defenestrated, but the absence of any context to her departure deprives Canadians of invaluable perspective.
In that regard, during a June visit to Ottawa, I asked an obvious question: “Why doesn’t Bev Oda ‘get it’ so far as her abuse of ministerial travel expenditures is concerned? The proximate stimulus for a distant observer such as I was the publicity over her expenditures during a 2011 conference in London. As is well known, during that meeting, Oda switched from the conference hotel to the Savoy, hired a limousine, and consumed $16 orange juice—subsequently overbilling the government for these expenses. In April 2012, these improprieties came to light, and she apologized publicly and repaid the overbilling.
In answer to my “why,” the response was immediate. Oda is an unrepentant, compulsive chain smoker—a circumstance widely known throughout the Ottawa media and by political cognoscenti but never reported. She was a chain smoker to the extent that she was always in search (within Parliament) of spots where she could light up. Thus the first hotel (where the conference was being held) was totally nonsmoking; London taxis are nonsmoking; and $16 orange juice is a “gotcha” charge at many hotels where the patron foolishly assumes that the buffet breakfast or room service includes orange juice.
Oda’s chain smoking was so persistent that reportedly she would smoke in nonsmoking hotel rooms and pay the associated penalty/fines. Yet the most that a “not-in-the-know” Canadian might surmise was an extrapolation from the photo of Oda with a cigarette stuck in her mouth.
Oda’s chain smoking is an explanation, not an acceptable excuse. The failures lay in her own blithe behavior, which was hardly a “one off” occurrence, and the absence of “minders” who should have noted the hotel price differences to Oda and arranged for compensatory payment before it came to media attention. And perhaps suggested a brisk walk from her hotel to the conference center would also do her lungs some good. In the end, her decision to embrace a nicotine addiction presumably is a personal health question—but the costs she attempted to consign to the public were not.
It is possible that the media ignored this explanation as it might have generated a scintilla of sympathy for her. Although, admittedly, the sympathy for an inveterate smoker is not much higher in some circles than it would be for a child abuser or spouse beater.
Oda has provided a strawwoman with which critics can torch the Harper administration regarding its foreign assistance policy. Foreign assistance has no constituency—or rather it has multiple critical constituencies. There are those that want more (or no) foreign assistance; those that want current amounts reduced; those that want it redistributed; and those that object to any redistribution to a specific country (versus providing it to another country). So regardless of her other (real) shortcomings, Oda was inevitably going to be used up in the process. It is a tribute to her status as one of the prime ministers strongest early supporters, as well as being a female visible minority, that she lasted as long as she did.
One can already hear the grinding of the knives being sharpened for future Minister Julian Fantino; he’ll need eyes in the back of his head to survive until the next Cabinet shuffle.