TORONTO - The lack of a formal application process doesn't mean there was no accountability in the awarding of $20 million in grants to various multicultural organizations at the end of the last fiscal year, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.

The Opposition has claimed for days that the government handed out the grants to groups with close Liberal ties in a year-end spending spree, and accused the Liberals of using the money to create a "slush fund'' to reward friends and supporters.

McGuinty dismissed the opposition attacks while defending the year-end grants the Liberals handed out, but admitted his government has had to create a new application process for awarding grants.

Look, these are the same grants that were published on-line, so don't tell me that there's no transparency associated with this,'' McGuinty said.

"In terms of how we solicit applications, I think that we can do a better job there.''

McGuinty claimed the Liberals were trying to do something different from previous Ontario governments by providing funding to multicultural groups so they can create programs to help immigrants settle here.

"We think it's very important for us to continue to find ways to support worthy organizations that help immigrants settle and succeed,'' he said.

"We think it's absolutely essential that we get our diverse society right. This distinguishes us tremendously from the previous (Conservative) government.''

The Conservatives and New Democrats said Tuesday they weren't against giving grants to immigrant groups, but complained that the Liberals handed out taxpayers' dollars without any way of knowing if the money would be well spent.

"Check out what's on line: there's the names of the organizations and how much money they got. There's not a single item about how they knew they could get the money,'' said Opposition Leader John Tory.

"This is just rubbish.''

Tory said the province's auditor general should investigate what he claims is a Liberal slush fund, while the New Democrats see parallels with the sponsorship scandal that rocked former Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal government.

The province handed out money to immigrant groups but didn't make sure it was properly spent, said NDP Leader Howard Hampton.

There isn't any accountability, there isn't any transparency.''

Both opposition parties said Citizenship and Immigration M

inister Michael Colle should resign from cabinet while the grants are investigated, but McGuinty said he stands behind his minister.

"Mike Colle has my full support,'' said McGuinty.

"He is responsible for a brand new ministry. We're trying to do something here which is largely without precedent in the annals of human history. That sounds like rhetoric, but it's not.''

Colle gave reporters and opposition members virtually the same answer Tuesday regardless of the question asked, each time repeating that the government had wanted to partner with community-based organizations with well-known track records of providing good programs, especially for immigrants.

He admitted there were no follow-up audits to see how the grants were spent, and said a new on-line application form for organizations seeking money from his ministry won't be ready until the end of the week.

However, the government was able to embarrass the Opposition Tuesday by pointing out that the Conservatives had actually named the wrong person Monday when they said a Brampton seniors club that received a $100,000 grant was headed by the president of a federal Liberal riding association.

The Atma Singh Gill who heads the riding association is not a member of the seniors club, and two men who share that name attended the Ontario legislature Tuesday to demand an apology, which they got from Tory.