OTTAWA -- The Harper government scrambled to shove a genie back into the bottle as one of its sure-footed cabinet ministers apologized for insensitive comments about hungry children.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty defended the government's record of helping the poor after his colleague, Industry Minister James Moore, issued an unequivocal apology for saying it isn't his job to feed "my neighbour's child."
Moore made the comments to a radio station in Vancouver, where he was speaking about child poverty, an issue that has opened the Harper government up to broader criticism.
The NDP and Liberals called Moore's comments callous and heartless, accusing the government of failing hungry kids and poor families.
Flaherty, emerging from a meeting of the country's finance ministers, defended the Tory record of reducing taxes to address income inequality.
"Where do I begin?" said Flaherty. "We did the Working Income Tax Benefit, which people in that area of work will tell you was the most important tax reform for persons with limited income since the 1950s. We've reduced taxes overall. We've taken thousands and thousands of Canadians off the federal tax rolls altogether."
A spokesman for Candice Bergen, minister of state for social development, wrote in an email the Tories have made "major progress" in reducing child poverty, adding there have been "over 225,000 fewer children in poverty than under the Liberals."
The NDP and Liberals disagreed.
NDP critic Jinny Sims said in a statement that since 1989, the number of children living in poverty has risen to 979,000 from around 912,000.
Ralph Goodale, the Liberal deputy leader, said Moore's comments represent one more example of the "scorched-earth policies" of the Harper government.
Last month, the group Campaign 2000 said the country's child-poverty rate dropped slightly since the 2008-2009 recession, but noted 967,000 children and their families are still unable to fulfil their basic needs. It also said more children lived in poverty in 2011 than in 1989, when the House of Commons unanimously voted to end child poverty by 2000.
Moore told Vancouver radio station News1130 it's not up to the federal government to ensure children have enough to eat.
"Certainly, we want to make sure that kids go to school full-bellied, but is that always the government's job to be there to serve people their breakfast?" he was quoted as saying.
"Is it my job to feed my neighbour's child? I don't think so."
At first, Moore distanced himself from the remarks, which set off waves of criticism on social media. But on Monday, he backtracked: "In response to a question from a reporter last week, I made an insensitive comment that I deeply regret. I apologize," Moore said in a statement posted on his website.
He declined an interview request.
"During the holidays many of us are looking to help our neighbours and those in need," said the NDP's Sims. "For a Conservative minister to claim that child poverty isn't his problem is heartless.
"Child poverty has continued to grow under this government and now they're saying it's not their problem."
In a statement, Goodale accused the government of trying to "wash their hands of the searing statistic that one child in seven in Canada lives in poverty and goes to school every day on an empty stomach."
"The Conservatives say that's too bad, but it's not their problem -- despite two resolutions in Parliament in recent years calling for national action and federal leadership to tackle child poverty."
Moore went on to say that "caring for each other is a Canadian ethic that I strongly believe in -- always have and always will." He said "poverty is an issue that concerns me, and concerns all Canadians."
Moore said "all levels of government, indeed all members of our society" need to show compassion for those in need. Great work has been done to tackle poverty and the challenges associated with poverty. And while more work is needed, I know the cause of fighting poverty is not helped by comments like those I made last week," he said. "For that, I am sorry."
-- The Canadian Press