Taxpayers paying for Harper's image consultant
Published Wednesday, April 18, 2007 6:26PM EDT
OTTAWA - It turns out that taxpayers are picking up the tab for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's personal primper.
After two days of ducking media and opposition questions, the Conservatives finally revealed Wednesday that Michelle Muntean is on Harper's government staff.
But the revelation raises two more big questions: How much is she being paid? And why is there no government record of her employment.
Harper has been travelling with his personal image adviser for major domestic and international events -- most recently at ceremonies at Vimy Ridge in France last week. Muntean helps him perfect his look, including managing his wardrobe and general grooming.
News that Harper uses a style maven had the opposition both frothing and laughing.
"Does the prime minister have difficulty sleeping at night wondering whether he should wear the light blue socks or the dark blue ones?'' New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis asked in the House of Commons, to loud hoots and claps.
"Can the prime minister tell us who pays for his fashion adviser, and how much that costs?''
Liberal MP Garth Turner also took a shot at his former boss: "It's a legitimate question. I think it's an embarrassing one to him because he likes the cowboy image and not all cowboys wear powder.''
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan wouldn't say who pays for Muntean's services.
"Mr. Speaker, the prime minister maintains a tour staff, as do all prime ministers,'' Van Loan told the Commons.
But a government source later confirmed that taxpayers are on the hook for Muntean's services -- although the Conservative party pays her expenses.
However, there is no record of Muntean as an employee of the Prime Minister's Office, according to an official at the Privy Council Office. And an Access to Information request turned up no record of contracts paid out to Muntean.
Harper, meanwhile, has demanded accountability on such matters in the past.
As an MP, Harper went after Reform Leader Preston Manning publicly for not detailing his party-paid clothing allowance. Under pressure, Manning eventually did provide an accounting of the $31,000 perk, but tensions between the two men had begun in earnest.
In a bit of synchronicity, Harper was to attend a Manning event Wednesday night.
Conservative Party president Don Plett said the matter is not one that the party's governing body would have dealt with, but rather the Conservative Fund of Canada, and said he didn't know anything about it.
Calls to both the party headquarters and to fund president Irving Gerstein were not returned.
John Williamson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said such expenses are better paid by political parties.
"The idea that these expenses are going to be run up on the public tab and then answers aren't going to be forthcoming about how much its costing is unacceptable from a taxpayers point of view.''
Muntean began working with Harper during his run for the Conservative leadership, and stayed through two federal campaigns. She hails from the world of film and television, and had become CBC's head of makeup by the late 1990s.
A warm, bubbly personality, Muntean has now become a fixture in Harper's entourage and remains the only staff member he tolerates style advice from. Sources said Harper has tried to convince her to move to Ottawa, but she remains based near Toronto.
In addition to her travels to Vimy Ridge, Muntean was also with Harper in Hanoi, Vietnam when he met with Pacific rim leaders, and in St. Petersburg, Russia for last summer's G8 summit.