Uninvited guests, unintended consequences

Canada appears destined to be dragged into the centre of the U.S. presidential debate once again.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain has sought and received an invitation to Ottawa to give a speech next week on free trade.


McCain’s choice of topic and venue is unlikely to be coincidental. Even if the nominee himself makes no mention of NAFTA-gate, the planeload of American reporters travelling with him will undoubtedly make the link, prompting yet more grief for Obama. His appearance may also provoke some additional awkwardness for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. –

Canadian Press (via CTV News)

I’m sure he means well – or, at least, means no specific ill will towards the Prime Minister. But honestly, you’d think John McCain, or someone on his team, would have realized this may not be quite the right time for an extraterritorial campaign swing through the neighbouring nation’s capital, at least from the point of view of the current Canadian administration.

After all, even under ordinary circumstances, a Prime Minister really isn’t supposed to play favourites in a US presidential campaign – a lesson that you’d think Stephen Harper, of all people, would have taken to heart in the aftermath of the NAFTA/Obama/Clinton/Brodie/PMO/CTV/Wilson Leak Debacle.

Harper, however …

is also all too aware that, even after Kevin Lynch exonerated, albeit halfheartedly, his soon-to-be-former chief of staff, the question of who leaked the now infamous memo to the Associated Press is still an unsolved mystery. The list of suspects, in fact, has recently expanded to include at least one card-carrying Republican: Frank Sensenbrenner, who, according to the Toronto Star, was foisted on the Canadian embassy last year, at the express behest of the Prime Minister’s Office, yet who was apparently never interviewed by Lynch.

That’s one reason why a Commons committee is getting ready to launch its own investigation into the leak itself; specifically, how it was handled – before, during and after the story broke – by the Prime Minister’s Office, and PCO. Sensenbrenner’s name is almost certain to come up, which could cast the whole affair in an entirely different light – and not one particularly flattering for the government, given the overwhelming Canadian preference, even amongst Conservative voters, for Obama over McCain.

Given all that, next week’s visit couldn’t possibly come at a worse moment for the Harper government, which will likely be on the defensive before McCain’s plane even touches down on Canadian ground. As for the speech itself, McCain won’t have to worry about the turnout – the event sold out within minutes of being announced – but it’s unlikely that many senior PMO or ministerial staffers will be in attendance, as their presence would set off a fresh flurry of speculation on cosiness between the Conservatives and the McCain campaign. Even though this is by no means an official visit, his mere presence in Ottawa will be seen, rightly or wrongly, as evidence that the PM is doing whatever he can to help out his Republican buddies.

All in all, the best thing that could happen right now, as far as the PM is concerned, would be for McCain to re-check his datebook, and discover that he has inadvertently double-booked, and has a prior engagement somewhere far from Ottawa that he simply can’t miss.

UPDATE – My editor emeritus agrees that it would be better for all concerned if McCain stayed home. If the Republican hopeful does turns up as scheduled, however, and requests a meeting with the PM, he thinks that Harper should “sit down with him in private, avoid any gratuitous photo-ops, and make it abundantly clear that [he] is equally eager to get together with Obama if he ventures north of the border.”