The Commons: The interrogation of Lisa Raitt

The opposition won’t let the case of the missing documents go

by Aaron Wherry

LisaRaittThe Scene. The afternoon’s session began with the rare seven-part question.

“Mr. Speaker,” said Liberal David McGuinty, “I have several questions for the Prime Minister.”

Did the documents, he wondered, belong personally to the Natural Resources Minister? When did she realize they were missing? Did she inform her deputy minister? If so, when? What secret information did they contain? What commercial information may have been revealed? And, finally, would the government be taking action against the television network that was, previously and inadvertently, in possession of said documents?

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister chose to answer none of these queries.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “as I said yesterday, the minister had reasonable expectations that these documents would be kept secret. The minister has acted accordingly, and I support the minister in her actions.”

Even less surprisingly, Mr. McGuinty did not then decide to cease with his examination. “Mr. Speaker, secret documents are those that ‘could reasonably be expected to cause serious injury to the national interest,’” he posited. “We are told these documents contain information on AECL’s financial status, indebtedness, contractual undertakings, obligations, lawsuits and details surrounding its bid for the supply of nuclear power in Ontario. They also deal with the critical issue of medical isotopes for medical testing. Can the Prime Minister explain how the release of this information could not be reasonably expected to cause serious injury to the national interest?”

The Prime Minister returned to his previous point. Then he revived his new favourite trick.

“Let me quote for the member opposite the editorial today in the Toronto Star which says that the minister offered her resignation,” he said. “The Prime Minister rightly refused to accept it. It is time for the opposition to move on to more substantive issues.”

The Conservatives stood to cheer the infinite wisdom of the same editorial board that endorsed Stephane Dion last fall.

Asked to get serious, Mr. McGuinty, blessed of a serious-sounding voice, tried to do just that.

“Mr. Speaker, let us move on and take stock,” he said.

Across the way, Gary Goodyear grabbed the International Trade Minister, Stockwell Day, at this apparent threat of abduction.

“Three shutdowns, four radioactive leaks in 18 months,” McGuinty continued, “$600 million in undisclosed cost overruns; a fraction spent of the $351 million for Chalk River isotopes; a $1.6 billion lawsuit; dozens of hospitals and thousands of Canadians waiting for their medical tests now forced to settle for 20th century medicine in 2009; a minister’s secret materials left behind in a national newsroom.”

Then, a question.

“Prime Minister, tell us, explain please,” the Liberal begged, “why the decision not to accept your minister’s resignation?”

Stephen Harper had had enough by then. Indeed, he would not rise again all day. Up here, for the first of 13 responses on this, the second day of her testimony, came the Natural Resources Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to update the House today on progress that we have made with respect to medical isotopes,” Lisa Raitt began. “As we have mentioned before, this is a global issue that is going to be dealt with in a global manner. Through Canada’s leadership we have been successful in having our co-operative partners in The Netherlands’ Petten to increase their medical isotope supply by at least 50 per cent. The Australians are coming on line much quicker than they had expected for commissioning. Tomorrow we have a very important bilateral meetings in Washington dealing with the matter.”

Mr. Goodyear smacked the desk in front of him with delight. The government side stood to applaud.

The Bloc Quebecois took their turns. Gilles Duceppe raised questions of ethics and codes. Raitt returned to her rote. “Mr. Speaker, as indicated yesterday this is a serious matter,” she assured. “There are clear procedures in place in our offices. Those procedures were not followed. Corrective action has been taken. I offered my resignation to the Prime Minister. He did not accept it. A member of my staff offered her resignation and I did accept it.”

Duceppe invoked the example of the former minister for foreign affairs.

“Mr. Speaker,” Raitt replied, “as we have indicated, there are clear procedures…”

Michel Guimond raised the name of Julie Couillard. The government side grumbled.

“Mr. Speaker,” responded Raitt, “as we have indicated, we treat this very seriously…”

Guimond turned to the government’s own guide to ministerial conduct.

“Mr. Speaker,” offered Raitt, “as we indicated, there are clear procedures…”

Liberal Geoff Regan stood and ventured a novel approach, invoking the case of a Liberal minister who stepped down in 2005 amid allegations of wrongdoing—one accusation later rescinded, the other linked to her chief of staff.

Raitt appealed for sanity. “Mr. Speaker, as indicated, this is a serious matter. Corrective action has been taken, but more importantly, the honourable member opposite oftentimes takes the opportunity in the House to ask me about the situation with respect to isotope supply and I think it is really important that we continue to focus on that,” she said. “That is why I was pleased to announce earlier that we have been successful globally in increasing the amount of global isotopes available, that Australia has agreed to go online faster than it had originally anticipated, and that we are working very diligently with our U.S. counterparts on coming up with a solution for this real issue.”

Jay Hill, the government house leader, stood to lead the applause. Regan stood to table the obvious rejoinder.

“Mr. Speaker, if they cannot handle secure documents, how can we have any confidence they will handle isotopes properly?” he asked. “This minister knows she is responsible. That is why she tendered her resignation, so I have to ask. Was it her idea to sacrifice her 26-year-old assistant, or was it the PMO operatives who made her shift the blame, or perhaps the Prime Minister himself?”

“Ahhh!” the Cons moaned at mention of the now departed staffer.

Raitt wondered if we might all move on. “I would just like to go back to what has been indicated earlier, where both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail indicated that it is time to move on and talk about things Canadians truly do care about, not about who did what to whom at what point in time, but rather what is going on with medical isotopes, how we are restructuring the Canadian nuclear industry in order to make more jobs for people, and what this government is actually doing to help Canadians.”

The Liberals turned then to Carolyn Bennett, the doctor and veteran frontbencher, whose ability to speak loudly and angrily often drives the Conservative side to distraction. There was some sparring then over the cost of this and that before Bennett, waving a pointy finger to rival the Prime Minister’s, attempted to convey the desperation of our current situation.

“Mr. Speaker, the Dutch reactor is going to go down for six months very soon. Australia imports 100 per cent of its isotopes,” she said, setting the scene. “In 2007, her government oversaw a life-threatening crisis in medical isotopes. Eighteen months later, the minister still has no plan–no plan for domestic supply and no secure plan for international supply. Halifax, Ottawa, Saskatoon, the B.C. interior. What do these places all across this country have in common? Thousands of Canadians already being told that they will not get the cancer or heart tests they need.”

Finally, the question.

“What is the minister going to do?” she finished. “Fire her policy advisor?”

Her time had expired and her microphone turned off, but her voice was no less audible.

“Mr. Speaker, I know the microphone got cut off, but I am sure we could all hear the yelling from the other side of the House. As I said yesterday, it is not making it a more compelling issue,” Raitt reprimanded. “The reality is and the facts are as follows. We are working with the world. It is going along very well. Canada has taken a leadership position and is working very diligently around the clock on this matter. It is extremely important to our Canadians. That is where our efforts are with respect to the matter.”

The minister would have to stand a few more times, but the worst of the day’s interrogation was over. Barring a profound public health crisis, she may yet get through this.

The Stats. Lisa Raitt, 10 questions. Abousfian Abdelrazik, six questions. Chalk River, four questions. Forestry, government assets, the national mint, Quebec and trade, two questions each. D-Day, aboriginals, product safety, the seal hunt, nuclear waste, bilingualism, the police and health records, one question each.

Lisa Raitt, 13 answers. Rob Nicholson, six answers. Leona Aglukkaq and Stockwell Day, four answers each. James Moore, three answers. Stephen Harper, Ted Menzies and Rob Merrifield, two answers each. Jacques Gourde, one answer.

The Commons: The interrogation of Lisa Raitt

  1. My previous rule of thumb: when Stephen Harper says "quite frankly", he's about to mislead you in a most un-frank manner.

    My new (additional) rule of thumb: when a Conservative describes something as "serious", they're not going to do sh*t about it, ever.

    Also, why isn't the opposition brutalizing the gov't with the contrast between the last Chalk River crisis ("We're out of isotopes! Run!") and the current crisis ("Everything is dreamy. Go back to sleep")??? Seriously, they grossly overplayed their hand last time, use this opportunity to take them down a notch! God, Sheila Copps would have had a freakin' field day with this when she was in opposition!

  2. Because they joined in with the government in that same sense of panic. It was ludicrous.

  3. Okay, I'll accept that Lisa Raitt is going to keep her job and we should move on.

    But what, then? Do we not think it prudent to examine the current safeguards that are in place, see if any of those rules are routinely broken or minimized, perhaps institute new guidelines for how to deal with this sort of thing? It's painfully ironic that we supposedly do that in secret.

    • …see if any of those rules are routinely broken or minimized…

      Oh, I think we can safely assume that those rules are broken–into thousands of tiny shards–on an hourly basis.

  4. Should we talk about something Canadians actually care about? Sure:

    Why did the government classify documents are secret when they were merely embarrassing? To do so is a grievous abuse of the privilege, and serves to make Ottawa ever less transparent. This government was supposedly elected on a platform to improve transparency, yet it seems that at every turn transparency is being reduced.

    • That *is* the elephant in the room. The fact that no one noticed that these 'secret' documents were missing for almost a week suggests that they weren't so much secret as embarrassing to the government, as well they should be.

  5. Actually, Harper is enjoying this. Another potential replacement leader crashing and burning.

    Remember Rona Ambrose? BTW, BTC, where is she?

    • I believe she's chairing this year's National Executive Committee meeting of the North American Association of Campus Objectivist Clubs.

    • Well you have to remember that the Tories have historically had a different leadership selection tendency than the Liberals. Running a ministry competently hasn't really been the way up for Conservatives because the party is so often out of power. Provincial Tories may have some record, but provincial experience also ties one to a region in a confederation where citizens of each region are suspicious of the other.* Harper, Manning, Mulroney, McKay and Clark had zero experience. Campbell only had very little, as did Stockwell Day (at the provincial level).

      *As a result, many of our PM's have been people that forsook the politics of their home province – Clark was a red Tory from Alberta, Harper is a conservative from Ontario, Paul Martin is an Ontarian that moved to Quebec. Chretien was a federalist lover of Canada from a separatist heartland. While Mulroney is Irish enough to fail the pur laine test. We like PM's that forsake their birthplace – there is something pan-Canadian about it (with a dad from Quebec, a mom from Newfoundland and grandparents from Alberta, and a childhood in Toronto, I should be a shoe-in for the PMO).

  6. Am I the only one wondering why those documents are classified anyway? I mean Canada doesn't have any important information in the first place, but as ministries go, natural resources has to be pretty far down the list. Moreover, if the Liberals genuinely care about secrecy as a goal of government, and believe that preventing the spread of sensitive materials is in the national interest, you would think they would avoid detailing exactly what was in the secret documents. I guess the Bernier comparison was just too tempting to resist.

    • "Am I the only one wondering why those documents are classified anyway?"

      Allan Gregg spoke to that on last night's At Issue – it has a lot to do with access to information legislation: the only way to keep "internal" documents private is to classify them. Otherwise, journalists/citizens could get their hands on most any caucus discussion papers, notes from meetings, etc. (Which doesn't strike me as an abuse of the system in this case – a party in power has the right to discuss ideas and plans without those discussions being public in most cases.)

  7. I'm rather disappointed that the media hasn't said diddly about the CTV's ethics in all this.
    If I was to leave my briefcase on the train or lose my wallet downtown, what would I expect if someone found it?
    I would think that any reasonable person would expect (if found ) the finder would look at it and make a sincere effort to return the item to me as soon as possible.
    This whole thing of CTV holding it for 6 days and going through the documents taking notes is totally unethical and disappointing.Why does the media feel they have the moral authority to create this kind of issue.
    CTV knew who owned the item,and could immediately have called Raitt and told her that the papers were left at the studio.
    People make mistakes, and I don't say Raitt was not responsible,she was,but at the same time CTV exploited her error for their own good and did little to show some ethical fortitude in returning it promptly.
    The media is becoming less ethical in the name of selling news.There was no story here until CTV created it.

    • Of course not. Media ethics are only ever questioned when they make the Liberals look bad.

  8. "God, Sheila Copps would have had a freakin' field day with this when she was in opposition! "

    Yup – where is the Liberal rat pack when you need them…?
    The CPC has its rats…Poilievre…Goodyear…Baird…
    where are the Liberal rats?
    [I'd better throw in a reference to the Pied Piper at this point - otherwise Colleague Wells will be all over me...]

  9. I think that the crew on the national last night had it spot on with this file. Folks with a 10 billion dollar GM bailout just announced the House is consumed with this issue which when you get right down to it isn't a story after all – and this is what the debate is? ….. sad day for canada when the oppostion parties and the media don't have the courage to stand up and have a real debate on a real issue but then they are probably afraid of opening this file because they support the bailout even more than Harper but there is no way they can admit it! ROFL LMAO – instead everyone uses this non story because it's easier, sexier and completed whatever little narrative or point you are trying to make.

  10. Simply want to say your article is stunning. The lucidity in your post is simply spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this field.

  11. I have seen allot of people make an effort to discus and write about this subject…and i have seen a lot of failures…but you have hit the nail on the HEAD….I agree totally and am looking forward to your view on other subjects

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