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Raitt-gate misses the point Add to ...



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The full transcript of the roundtable appears below

JOHN GEIGER

Hello, I'm John Geiger, Editorial Board Editor of the Globe and Mail. I'm sitting in today for the Globe's Editor in Chief, John Stackhouse.

Welcome to the Globe Roundtable, a political panel that often leaves recordings of its off the cuff ruminations in a newsroom just like Lisa Raitt's aide did, the panel does it on a weekly basis. We'll be talking about what has been dubbed rather unfortunately Raitt-gage, the secret documents left by now former aide to the Natural Resources Minister in the CTV newsroom, and a tape that was abandoned in the newsroom of the Chronicle Herald. Both of which have resulted in Opposition howls for Ms. Raitt's head.

Then there's the foul mouthed off-hand remarks by Transport Minister John Baird about Toronto made, of all places, in the media rooms of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention which was being held in Whistler.

We'll also be discuss the government's handling of a damning decision by a federal court judge in the case of exiled Canadian, Abousfian Abdelrazik, Mr. Justice Russell Zinn ordered the government to stop thwarting Mr. Abdelrazik's constitutional right to come home. He concluded that ministers, bureaucrats and Canada security agencies had trampled on Mr. Abdelrazik's constitutional rights, schemed to find ways to deny him a passport, travel documents, and also that CSIS agents were complicit in getting him imprisoned in Sudan in the first place.

The judge ordered Abdelrazik flown home immediately but five days have passed and we still have no response from the government, which is we are told, studying a decision. What is possibly in it for the government to drag out this affair?

To discuss these subjects I am joined today by our Globe Roundtable regulars, Jodi White the former Chief of Staff to Joe Clarke and Kim Campbell and Past President of the Public Policy Forum.

John Manley, Senior Counsel for the law firm of McCarthy Tetrault, Canada's former Minister of Industry, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister who also chaired a Cabinet committee on Public Security and Anti-terrorism after 9\11.

Finally, we're joined by Doug McArthur, distinguished Fellow in Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, former Cabinet Minister in Saskatchewan and a Deputy Minister to two Premiers of British Columbia.

Welcome everyone, good morning.

JOHN GEIGER

Jodi I'd like to start with you. You've worked in political officers, what do you make of what's been called Raitt-gate? Is this suggestive of something fundamentally wrong with the current government? Or are those problems involving Ms. Raitt simply innocent errors by a now former aide that have been blown up in both media reports and by the Opposition which seems to want to have Ms. Raitt fired?

JODI WHITE

Well, what I find really disturbing about this whole story is the fact that the real story is the state of Chalk River and the isotope issue. And we're just way off it on all of the other things that we're into. I mean, we have sort of astonishing and that one is by a political staffer which you know you just can't even talk about. It's just so … so many blunders so quickly.

You know, some would say maybe this is exactly why in fact the Prime Minister held such tight control over all of his ministers etc. I mean there were a lot of blunders here, but I do think the real story is Chalk River and what's happened over the last really two years in terms of the firing of the Nuclear Safety Commissioner a couple of years ago. And what the government's doing and we're way off that story now. It is hopelessly dispiriting.

I don't think the Minister should have resigned, I think, she should have apologized though and we still haven't had that. These things do happen and they're awful when they do happen with staffers. But we're at the … you know, June is always a month of total fatigue in Ottawa, they're coming to the finish line to get out and have a summer off.

But there's a story here and the story is Canada's international reputation and our domestic management of our nuclear industry and where we see ourselves in the world in that industry.

JOHN GEIGER

Okay John, you know I certainly take that point that Jodie's made but do you think there are serious issues raised from these cases? I mean I have this memory and perhaps it's just looking at history through rose-coloured glasses, but a memory that there was a time when ministers were accountable even for actions by subordinates that they were unaware of. But that people did resign from government when problems, serious problems, developed in their department.

Do you think that the ministers in question and mainly Ms. Raitt - I'm also referring to Mr. Baird, but Ms. Raitt is really the flashpoint here - should be held to account in the way that Maxime Bernier was in fact?

JOHN MANLEY

Well, no I don't actually think that this is the Bernier case at all. I do think the principle of ministerial responsibility extends to managing the isotope issue. And when we actually parsed the words from that tape, personally I'm not offended by the notion that the Minister saw this as an issue that she could gain some political success on, because that was premised on the fact that she could solve the problem.

And until we have a plan for solving the problem, I think she is responsible and as far as I can tell nothing's happened since January. I'm with Jodi, this is a really serious issue and my concern is not that she was glib about it in the ladies' washroom, my concern is that nobody seems to be doing anything to get us an answer to the main problem. Those are the things for which ministers should resign. Not goof-ups. I mean if we all resigned because some day we had a "oops" moment, well then there'd be nobody in any job in the government.

JOHN GEIGER

And yet we see the Liberal Opposition especially leading the charge in the House calling for resignations. They're focusing very much on these issues which I think we are agreeing are relatively minor. You know, is this evidence of the more cerebral leadership perhaps or the more pointed leadership of the Liberal Party under Mr. Ignatieff? What do you think the strategy is there for the Party?

JOHN MANLEY

Well I think the strategy is to try to raise the issue of the government's competence in general. And that's whether it's the deficit went from nothing at the end of February to fifty billion dollars in May. Or whether it's this particular issue or when you're in Opposition you try to make the maximum amount of noise possible just so that you penetrate the attention of the voters and try to get them to think of the government in a particular way so that when the election finally comes, they say - well, we've had enough. These people are either corrupt or incompetent or whatever.

That's just regrettably the way the game is played. But I think that on another level the job of quite frankly people like this panel is to say there's really some substantive issues here at stake and this is what we need to be trying to get people to focus on.

JOHN GEIGER

Doug, I'm assuming you agree with that point regarding the importance of the underlying issues here?

DOUG McARTHUR

Well, actually I don't. I have a slight disagreement. I think we've diverted this to another issue, it's a related issue but there are some issues going on here that we should talk about. I mean obviously the direct issues of the documents which were left behind, the secret documents, and then the tapes, has become a media-worthy event and has got the attention of Parliament.

And there is a reason for that at least. Let's break it down. I think in the first instance when the secret documents were left behind, I think that this was clearly a major breach. And I'm not sure that this was handled by the Prime Minister as well as it should have been. In that case I think a resignation would have been justified.

I know that it's no longer the case, as you said at one time and certainly I knew this, if you did something of that sort regardless of what it was about, didn't go back to what the issue was about per se but if you left secret documents behind you were expected to be accountable for that.

And in that case the Prime Minister didn't hold her to account and I think that was a mistake. So I think that is an issue and a substantial issue and I think it is worthy of talking about. And I think we should separate it from the underlying issue of the isotopes.

As for the tape well it's just almost a comedy of errors and I do think that in that case the Opposition parties have become a little bit extreme and I think some of the public is seeing this. I Mean it's almost an hilarious set of events with this tape and how it was left behind and she didn't retrieve it when she was told about it. And then these offhand conversations, or these private conversations were recorded on it, for whatever reason I don't know.

So that's going to be the circus of politics that's true. But I think they've got the wrong issue for demanding her resignation. I don't think this one justifies a resignation. But there are substantive issues here, the handling of documents, the accountability of staff. And one thing I would take from this is that staff have to take a lot of responsibility, need to be responsible people.

This young woman of 26 it just seems to me she didn't have the experience and background and focus on her job. And that says something about the people they're hiring to take on these responsible positions.

JOHN GEIGER

What do you make of Mr. Baird's - sorry, did somebody want to jump in there?

JODI WHITE

Well I was just going to say, the whole concept of ministerial accountability has been morphing and changing. Some would say not for the better but I mean it's gone over the last twenty, twenty-five years there has been acknowledgement that for instance ministers do not have to resign over an issue that happened in very junior levels of their department where they had absolutely no way to know that it was going on.

Whereas maybe forty years ago in fact that was the case. So there have been changes on - and some would say not for the better frankly - but that is why you now, rather than just resigning on the moment, make some analysis of the issue and try to figure out if it is really worthy of a resignation. And that's clearly what has happened in this case and the feeling was that yes, secret documents were left behind, this is not good obviously to have happened to anyone.

But that for a minister to resign on that basis when it was really an inept staffer, the Prime Minister made a good judgment call and I think these judgment calls have been made quite a bit in the last say fifteen years on a variety of different issues as the whole ministerial accountability has changed slightly.

DOUG McARTHUR

But there was a reason why and there is a reason why in a parliamentary system ministers are and do take responsibility for what happens. Including what happens in their departments at the junior levels. But setting that aside, this was a case of secret documents in the possession of the Minister. This isn't a long reach from what the Minister is responsible for. These were documents the Minister had, not anybody else. And the Minister simply did not take the steps necessary to ensure these documents remained confidential and secret. And you can't get much closer to the Minister than that.

So if you're not accountable for that then is there anything that you're not accountable for?

JOHN MANLEY

Well, I think before we get too excited about those documents you have to also say - well had those documents in their entirety been published which it ultimately, at least the salient points were, how would the interests of Canada be damaged? And one of the points of evaluation why we grade things as secret or top secret is the damage that would be caused by their indiscrete revelation. And I think in this case they really didn't merit being called secret. They might be confidential, it was information that was to be revealed to a Parliamentary Committee anyway. They just didn't want to reveal it before the appropriate time.

It didn't undermine the national interest in any way. It didn't put anyone's life or health at risk nor did it cost the government any money so you know I think you've got to put it in an appropriate context.

In the case of Mr. Bernier he was carrying State documents that related to Canada's international role. And could potentially have been damaging to our international reputation in that context. So it's not the same thing.

JOHN GEIGER

Well let's turn now to the case of Mr. Abdelrazik. By their actions you'd think the Harper government retained very serious security concerns about Mr. Abdelrazik. How can you explain the conduct of Canada essentially doing everything in its power to keep a Canadian out of Canada even after the court now has weighed in with a very pointed ruling with regard to this situation?

Doug, if that is the case, if there are lingering concerns about Mr. Abdelrazik does he not still deserve a right to return to Canada and should any concerns about him be dealt with here perhaps in the courts?

DOUG McARTHUR

Oh absolutely. I think it's been now well established and I think any reasonable person can see by the facts that he should be given the protection of the courts and the recognition under the constitution of his rights. And it's pretty clear from this judge's decision that CSIS was culpable in this, that the bureaucrats have been working systematically to undermine his ability to access his rights.

That the Minister himself has not afforded him due process. I mean the multiple failings of the government mean that I think you do have to be able to rely upon your courts to judge what the government's behaviour is and to take corrective action. So I think that's the right thing.

In a way that's what one of the things the courts are there for with respect to a judicial review is to protect us against when government does fail us as individual citizens or as individuals for whom the government is responsible.

Obviously the government must have something in terms of some serious concern about him given the way they're continuing to drag their feet. So I guess what the government's responsibility here to do would be to take this to the next level of court if they really feel they have this kind of problem.

But I think another problem and this is fairly serious, it really does undermine people's sense of confidence and security in the protections the government offers its citizens. I think the government, while national security issues are difficult, the government has to come out with some way of explaining to the public and be accountable to the public about why they continue not to bring him home. And why they're failing to act and to say anything on this case. They've got to say something.

JOHN GEIGER

Well John, you've been involved in public security, you obviously would have some insight into this case. Can you help us to understand the government's motives here?

JOHN MANLEY

Well of course I have no direct knowledge of what they know or believe they know about Mr. Abdelrazik himself. As Doug has said, I can only assume that they believe he's a pretty bad dude and he's got some stuff that makes them take this rather harsh view.

However, my belief is that while we need occasionally to exercise some special powers in order to deal with the threat of terrorism, we worry about terrorism because not only the physical and financial damage that it can cause but also because it undermines our institutions.

And fundamentally our institutions depend upon an approach to the rule of law that is well rooted in hundreds of years of our history which is that a person who is accused has the right to know the nature of the allegations against them and to offer an answer to those allegations before an impartial arbiter.

And as far as I can see in this case, this individual is not being given that fundamental right. Furthermore, if there is evidence against him and if some of this evidence ought to have been disclosed by him upon his initial entry to Canada or his application for Canadian citizenship, there are procedures whereby that citizenship could be revoked.

But there are procedures and he would have the right to answer those allegations. So I think this sort of case undermines public support for some of the very measures that I believe are necessary to deal with some of the current threats because they undermine public confidence that anyone and everyone will be treated fairly.

JOHN GEIGER

Jodi, there's more than a hint I think of an inevitability around the eventual return of Abdelrazik to Canada. What is to be gained by further foot dragging in this case? Is this an effort by the Conservative Government to play to its base by appearing to be hard line on matters of national security? That obviously goes against John's point. But do you think that that may be underlying this as well as their handling of the Omar Khadr situation? Is this really a political agenda more than a national security agenda?

JODI WHITE

It may be their instincts. I'm not sure frankly and if it is their instincts I mean they're going to lose on the basis of the court cases, probably in both cases. So I mean it's unfortunate in that way and I don't think a government needs to put itself in the position of being forced into doing these things, which ultimately I think we talked about this a couple of months ago where we all felt they were going to be pushed into bringing him back.

I mean for him to have the right to defend himself as John talked about, you've got to do that in Canada. You can't move on any of this unless you've got him back in Canada where these things can take place.

In terms of the government's political agenda, as I say, I'm not sure. It may be some basic instincts in terms of the climate that we've been living through on terrorism. And in terms of some things they may be hearing from CSIS about this case. But, again, that's all got to come out into the open and he has to be given the chance to defend himself. And so I think if those were the instincts they had, I don't know why they put themselves in this position of being forced into it because it was inevitable that it was going to happen.

JOHN GEIGER

Okay, we just have a couple of minutes left but I just wanted to get a take of each of you on the election of an NDP government in Nova Scotia. It's obviously an historic breakthrough for the NDP. First time I believe in history that they've elected a government east of Ontario. So it's a significant breakthrough and it's a very decisive victory for the NDP in that province.

Just very quickly Jodi, do you have any comments or observations?

JODI WHITE

Well I mean it's a great breakthrough for the NDP as you say. It appears that it was simply a matter of the Province has had enough and it wanted change. And the NDP got the right leader to provide them with the opportunity to look at it and say that they could bring about some change.

And so whether it has longer term impacts one never knows but these kinds of victories for a Party are important for them in terms of a lot of foundation being laid over the last fifteen years to produce this victory. But as I say, I think more than anything it was a province exhausted with some ineptness and a desire to go somewhere new. With a new face.

JOHN GEIGER

John, one of the issues in the campaign was the need to restore fiscal rectitude in that province. It's interesting an NDP government made balancing the books one of the key aspects of the campaign. What are your views of the election? How significant is this?

JOHN MANLEY

Well I think it does underline the fact that there is a very broad middle in Canadian politics and that in order to win election you need to try to get yourself into that middle. And Darryl Dexter as an NDP leader showed himself to be capable of occupying that middle ground. Instead of being a Progressive Conservative he's being referred to as a Conservative Progressive.

He was on the national news this morning talking about this concerns about debt levels in Nova Scotia and the amount of interest payments that they have to pay on the provincial debt. So he could have been a Conservative leader using exactly the same words. So I think that's one lesson.

But secondly, this is a huge breakthrough for the political party, for the NDP. If they perform well it will deal with a lot of the boogie men that surround that Party and its electoral abilities certainly in central and eastern Canada, some of which are still inherited from the NDP election in Ontario in 1990.

JOHN GEIGER

Okay, and Doug, there have been Conservative Progressive governments elected elsewhere in Canada but there have also been some more hard left I guess you could say, NDP governments. I'm thinking of Dave Barrett in B.C. What's your take on the election of Mr. Dexter?

DOUG McARTHUR

Well I think two things. One it's not unusual for the NDP to take power or the CCF before it and the NDP to take power on the basis of a fiscally conservative program in terms of fiscal measures and Progressive in terms of economic and social measures.

Tommy Douglas did that, Roy Romano did that. Gary Doer's done that. This is a fairly successful formula and it doesn't necessarily mean that the NDP has just become another Party of the centre or the right. There's still a lot of fundamental ideas that govern what those successful governments have done which are consistent with the overall NDP directions.

But I do think John's right. The NDP now has four provinces where it's running at between forty and forty-five percent of the vote. Where it's either the government or can become the government in a forthcoming election fairly easily. To have that all across the country is a major shift in the way things are developing in the country.

And I think the NDP is obviously going to continue to be a significant force at the provincial level. And that's where the NDP successes have been. Governing provincially. Being successful provincially. To do that now in the Atlantic provinces is a great boost to the NDP and will give them I think a real boost nationally. Although not necessarily in national politics per se, that is to say, federal elections per se.

JOHN GEIGER

Okay Doug, you get the last word. So I want to thank each of you, Jodie, Doug and John, very much for your time and I look forward to speaking with you next week.

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