International Trade and Small Business Minister Mary Ng faced pointed questions from MPs on the ethics committee Friday about contracts awarded to her friend for communications advice — an ethical slip the opposition parties say has damaged trust in government.
Opposition MPs said it was unwise of Ng to hand thousands of dollars worth of work to a politically connected friend, and that she was rightly admonished by the ethics commissioner for a clear breach of federal conflict of interest law.
Ng acknowledged she was wrong to not recuse herself from a process that awarded Amanda Alvaro, a communications professional and Power & Politics panellist, some $16,950 for media training and other public relations work.
Ng said the sole-source contracts were awarded at the onset of COVID-19 in 2020. She said she needed outside help to cope with the volume of media requests at a time when she was handing out federal support for small businesses.
WATCH: Minister responds to questions about her conflict of interest
“It was all hands on deck. We needed every resource available to help Canadians and get support out to Canadians,” she said. “There was an incredible demand for information.”
In a separate 2019 contract, Alvaro was retained by Ng at a cost of $6,599.20 to perform similar “media training” work.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked if Ng would repay the funds — or resign her ministerial post — as “restitution” for breaching Canada’s ethics rules.
Ng didn’t answer, saying only that she is taking active steps to make sure the issue doesn’t happen again.
Ng has repeatedly dodged opposition demands that she resign for her ethical breach.
Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman later asked her again. Lantsman said that when someone steals from a business, they sometimes have to pay the money back — suggesting the same principle should apply in this case.
“I reject that premise. Nobody stole,” Ng said. “What the commissioner found here is that I failed to recuse. The work was done.”
Alvaro’s work included media training sessions with Ng, who was struggling to prepare for interviews with the press.
Ng said she and Alvaro did one-on-one virtual training sessions for “a few hours” over two days to get her up to speed on how best to handle the media.
“It was a lot of work,” she said.
Alvaro told the committee her company also prepared “social and digital media assets,” which were disseminated on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
She said her company, Pomp and Circumstance, produced a seven-minute video explaining the COVID-related supports that were available to small businesses.
The team also performed “media coordination,” sending information to business-related podcasts and hosting some Instagram live video streams featuring Ng, she said.
But the invoice Pomp and Circumstance sent to Ng’s office on May 31, 2020 only listed “two media training sessions” under a description of the work provided.
Conservative and NDP MPs said it was hard to believe Ng never considered the possibility of triggering a conflict of interest by hiring Alvaro, a person she has been close friends with for years.
“It was not flagged,” Ng said under questioning from NDP MP Matthew Green, who grilled her about the advice she got from staff about a possible conflict of interest.
Ng and Alvaro worked together at Queen’s Park when former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty was in office.
The opposition MPs also questioned the decision to award a contract to Alvaro when Ng already had access to dozens of taxpayer-funded communications staffers.
‘Well-connected and well-heeled friends’
There are more than 100 bureaucrats that perform this kind of work in Ng’s department and Ng personally employs four political communications staffers in her office.
Green said Alvaro, an experienced political operative and long-time commentator on CBC News, should have known her work with Ng could prompt a scandal.
Barrett pressed Alvaro to acknowledge that some Canadians are frustrated with this sort of “insider, back-slapping” behaviour.
“There’s a minister helping her well-connected and well-heeled friends,” he said. “Can you appreciate why that would undermine Canadians’ confidence in their institution?”
WATCH: Alvaro calls Ng ‘principled and hard-working’
Alvaro defended Ng’s decision to work with her.
“Your natural instinct is to work with someone you know and respect and trust, and someone who will get the job done right the first time,” she said.
In the end, Alvaro said, she did the work because she knew her friend needed some help at an unprecedented time.
The contract wasn’t worth much to her company, she said, because it accounted for “less than one-half of one per cent of our annual revenue in 2020.”