(This post will be updated below. Last updated at 2:40am.)
The popular guess among the dozen or so reporters gathered in the foyer had Maxime Bernier as good as gone. Only one member of the press gallery foresaw something less interesting to come. And, to be fair, on most matters of Hill anticipation, he probably would’ve been guessing right.
But here came the Prime Minister, walking a bit slow and looking a bit glum. (Were those tears in his eyes?) A small gaggle of Conservative MPs lurked in the shadows, apparently unaware of what was to come. So too loitered a few opposition members, the House having just voted on some matter or another. And, surely, as the Prime Minister arrived at the mic stand, those reporters nominated to ask questions—two English, two French—prayed their Bernier-centric preparations would prove worthwhile.
And so they did. Bernier had resigned. Something about leaving some top secret documents where they shouldn’t have been left. A very grave error, the Prime Minister said. “A failure to uphold accepted standards on government documents,” he explained, managing to make it seem Mr. Bernier had merely failed to fill out the proper form in registering for some health insurance.
And yet. “This is not to do with the Minister’s private life,” the Prime Minister assured.
And for that matter, “I thank Mr. Bernier for recognizing the mistake himself.”
Indeed. He’s a hero. Of sorts. Though perhaps one a bit slow on the uptake.
As the Prime Minister has it, Mr. Bernier realized his boo boo last evening and admitted it to his boss today. Never mind that Mr. Harper, at approximately one this afternoon, dismissed any talk of a national security threat involving the now-former foreign affairs minister—”I don’t take this subject seriously.”
I might swear I saw Mr. Bernier in the House just moments before Question Period began an hour later. But when the Speaker called for oral questions, he was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, as noted in today’s column, a binder on his desk was quickly delivered by a Parliamentary page to Peter Van Loan. Seems Mr. Bernier has a bit of problem with keeping track of his belongings.
Or maybe that binder didn’t technically belong to him by then.
In any event, the Prime Minister’s off to Europe now. Others will be left in the next few days to explain, well, a lot.
“A lot of questions are still not answered,” Gilles Duceppe astutely observed, the BQ leader the first of the opposition leaders to emerge from the House foyer for comment.
“We have more questions then when we started,” offered Jack Layton, upping the ante a touch.
Canadian Press is now reporting that Mr. Bernier left a classified document at the apartment of one Julie Couillard. If we are to believe the Prime Minister, it matters not that Ms. Couillard was dating the minister at the time he left said documents in her possession. But it will surely now matter that Ms. Couillard was once tied uncomfortably close to reputed members of organized crime.
Indeed, if Mr. Bernier is to apologize to anyone in the coming days, it is surely to the government ministers who, over the last few weeks, loudly proclaimed this to be much ado about nothing. Time and again, the Liberals and Bloc rose and suggested to this government that this messy business might make for a bit of a national security concern. Time and again, they were derided as meddlesome busy-bodies, shamelessly peering into the private life of Mr. Bernier and smearing he and his ex by association. Admittedly, watching from the gallery, it seemed at times to be veering toward the tawdry.
Those on the left side of the House may now bask, if quietly, in some redemption. And Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and our federally recognized sovereigntists will no doubt point out in the days to come that now it is this government who has a responsibility to peer into Mr. Bernier’s private life and determine just how great of an error he has made here.
We’ll save the political obituary for later. Though there are no doubt a few lessons to be taken from Mr. Bernier’s rapid rise and spectacular flop, there is probably one lesson to take away immediately. Namely that every so often, the accusations of scandal and whispers of wrongdoing that are endemic to this place do indeed amount to something. Sometimes there is a there there.
Here, for the sake of closure, is the text of Mr. Bernier’s letter to the Prime Minister. Note that he places the time of his informing the PM of the breach as “late this afternoon”—seemingly after Mr. Harper’s statement at 1pm. Though conspiracy theorists might wonder why Mr. Bernier felt the need to tell the Prime Minister in writing the time at which he told him what he told him.
This is to inform you that I am resigning my post as Minister of Foreign Affairs, effective immediately.
I informed you late this afternoon that last night I became aware that I had left behind classified government documents at a private residence.
Prime Minister, the security breach that occurred was my fault and my fault alone and I take full responsibility for my actions.
I have asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to conduct a thorough review of the situation.
Thank you for the trust you have shown in me. I will do everything I can to serve the government well in my capacity as Member of Parliament.
Here is video, from about 5pm today, of both Deepak Obhrai, Mr. Bernier’s Parliamentary Secretary, endorsing the now-former foreign affairs minister and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair dismissing questions about Mr. Bernier’s girlfriend.
Well, Garth Turner is gloating. Further thoughts from Susan Delacourt. And more details from Canadian Press. “Two sources told The Canadian Press that Mr. Bernier left sensitive classified material at Ms. Couillard’s apartment, her lawyer notified the Foreign Affairs department about the documents on the weekend, and the material was returned. One source said the package included a mix of classified material and briefing notes publicly available through the Access to Information Act. The package, he said, was preparation material for Bernier’s trip to the NATO summit in Bucharest – where Canada announced its intention to remain in Afghanistan until 2011.”
So, having watched the English version. Where to begin?
According to Ms. Couillard, the Conservatives originally wanted her to be a candidate.
When Maxime asked her to be his girlfriend, she told him of her past relationships. As far as she knew, there was no problem.
She met President George W. Bush and she says it’s “impossible” that a background check wasn’t done.
Maxime picked “the” dress. She questioned its appropriateness, but he said it would be fine. She later felt used.
The document left in her possession made her feel very uncomfortable—”panicked”—and she sought legal counsel. She says she did not read it.
“He wasn’t conscious of what he was doing. And that lack of consciousness brought me into the media circus.”
She has feared for her personal safety. Feels she was being watched and had her home bugged (including a microphone in her mattress). As Phillippe just observed, “Gross.”
Says she broke up with Mr. Bernier a week before Christmas, but continued to see him.
Says Mr. Bernier didn’t return her phone calls when the story first broke. He eventually called to reassure her that everything would be okay.
Refutes claims that she meddled in Mr. Bernier’s professional affairs.
She is not, she concludes, a threat to national security.
Canwest with more information on Max’s misplaced dossier. “… a well-placed source said Bernier left his ‘prep material’ for last month’s NATO summit in Romania in Couillard’s home. The documents were a spokesperson’s briefing book and another document, the contents of which the source would not disclose. But the source said they did not contain any sensitive financial information. ‘They were not market sensitive; they were not anything that could move markets,’ said the source.”
“Today was a bad day for Conservatives, but it represents an opportunity for the government move forward on its agenda without this distraction.” Or so goes the pep talk from one of Tom Flanagan’s preferred bloggers. Another prominent Blogging Tory, in between blaming not Bernier, but the Liberals for all of this, endorses Jason Kenney as the next Minister of Foreign Affairs.
CTV’s Bob Fife just deemed this less a resignation than a firing. Meanwhile, the Associated Press has moved its own account and, as of this writing, the story is posted to the front pages of CNN.com, NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com.
Historian Jack Granatstein surveys the wreckage. “”His tenure was brief and undistinguished. There is no doubt of that. He did seem to be in over his head all the way along. He didn’t have the experience or perhaps even the interest.”
The Post’s Don Martin: “Rarely has any minister in any government been punted under such abrupt and strange circumstances, never mind a senior one who served as Canada’s ministerial face to the world and rising star from Quebec. But Cabinet documents in a former girlfriend’s apartment equals a security breach. And with that, the once-mighty Max was minimized into a mere backbencher.”
A Reuters account is now being picked up in Australia.
Canadian Press and Canwest have each now moved substantial write-throughs. For our part, Paul Wells was at the altogether dramatic press conference too; Kady O’Malley tallies the unanswered questions here, here and here; and, as noted, Philippe Gohier watched Ms. Couillard’s TVA interview and reported back.
UBC professor Michael Byers talks to CTV. “I hope (Harper) has made a phone call to (U.S.) President (George) Bush already to explain what he’s doing to ensure that any of this information will not undermine our allies’ interest. Whether this will stick to Canadian politics, I don’t know. But it certainly sticks to Canada’s reputation abroad and our ability to make this happen.”
Former CSIS agent Michel Juneau-Katsuya. “What’s really important (is) that other governments abroad, our partners, construe that the information they share with us is protected.”
The Globe’s Ottawa bureau has now filed its version of events, including speculation on Bernier’s permanent replacement. “Mr. Emerson would seem a likely candidate to replace Mr. Bernier permanently, but it is still not clear whether he plans to seek re-election.
“One Conservative insider said Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg should not be ruled out as a replacement for Mr. Bernier. Mr. Solberg, although unilingual, is a tremendous communicator, who was his party’s foreign affairs critic while in opposition.
“But the biggest problem in replacing Mr. Bernier is that there are few strong Tory MPs from Quebec. One possibility, said a Tory insider, would be to promote Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon to a more prominent post to give him more profile.
“The Prime Minister might also decide to change other senior ministers. There has been much speculation that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Industry Minister Jim Prentice will swap jobs.”
Laval professor Rejean Pelletier to Bloomberg. “Harper is concerned about increasing the number of votes in Quebec and to a lesser extent in Ontario. A shuffle will allow him to name another Quebecer, probably in a lesser position, to re-establish the number of ministers from Quebec in cabinet.”
Historian Nelson Wiseman. “Opposition parties are going to try to exploit it. There’s a snowball effect beginning to happen. They’re piling up a legacy and some of it has been good, but there’s also some garbage.”