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Christie Blatchford (Deborah Baic)
Christie Blatchford (Deborah Baic)

Christie Blatchford

Nothing sexy in Raitt feeding frenzy Add to ...

If the federal Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt actually were to resign - at least, if she were to quit over this particular baby - then all really is lost. No one with half a pea for a brain will ever run for Parliament again, not that from Ottawa yesterday there is much evidence anyone has done so.

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On a day when Canadians learned of the death of a 20-year-old soldier in Afghanistan, most of their newspapers and a great chunk of the country's airwaves were filled with agonizing analysis of the accidentally tape-recorded remarks of Ms. Raitt in conversation with her then-aide, the dropsy-afflicted Jasmine MacDonnell.

This tape, itself in large measure the accidental recording of the two women chatting in a car as they drove around Victoria earlier this year (Ms. MacDonnell, need I add, had turned the recorder on by mistake), was left in a Parliament Hill loo (Ms. MacDonnell strikes again) and ended up in the hands of Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter Stephen Maher.

In February, Mr. Maher listened to enough of it to realize it belonged to Ms. MacDonnell and alerted her that he had it.

Alas and alack for her, Ms. MacDonnell never quite roused herself to come and fetch the recorder from Mr. Maher's office, and when, earlier this month, she resigned over some confidential papers she'd left behind in the CTV newsroom (she does have the knack, doesn't she?), Mr. Maher with the approval of his superiors listened to the tape.

Alas and alack for them, it appears to have contained little of news value, which did not stop the Chronicle Herald from providing breathtaking amounts of coverage of its contents yesterday.

In the online version of the story, the paper offered links every three or four graphs to various excerpts of Ms. Raitt and Ms. MacDonnell in conversation almost as stupefying as was the e-mail exchange between Mr. Maher and Ms. MacDonnell (as detailed in his affidavit, sworn when Ms. MacDonnell went to court to try to keep the lid on), wherein he chided her for failing to let him know of an announcement. "You totally forgot to let me know about atlantic energy whatsit thingy," he wrote, and she replied, "I totally did. The announcement came together really quickly. You still have my tape recorder so I say we're even."

Other news organizations, talk shows and politicians followed the Chronicle Herald lead, with the result that by Question Period yesterday, MPs and various opposition leaders were calling Ms. Raitt's remarks "disparaging" and "irresponsible" and demanding she apologize and/or be fired, and by the time the spin doctors were appearing on the afternoon TV shows, Liberal pundit Warren Kinsella had upped the ante and was describing the minister's comments as "disgusting" and "deplorable."

I was ready to beg for mercy before 9 a.m., but by late afternoon, when I saw my Ottawa colleague Jane Taber, whom I adore and admire, in conversation with CTV's Sandie Rinaldo, both of them quivering with excitement, I wanted to slit my wrists.

Ms. Rinaldo was asking Ms. Taber about the propriety of what Ms. Raitt had said on the tape, and said something like, "intemperate remarks, unguarded moments," and Ms. Taber replied, "I would hope, even in private conversation, we wouldn't hear … ministers talking about other portfolios in such a cavalier way."

Even in private? Are you bloody kidding me?

The two controversial remarks - made, remember, last January - were about Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and the current medical isotope crisis. Ms. Raitt has the lead role on the file, but Ms. Aklukkaq is a weak second.

On the tape, Ms. MacDonnell said the isotope issue is confusing to a lot of people. "But it's sexy," Ms. Raitt replied. "Radioactive leaks. Cancer." It was clear as a bell she wasn't talking about cancer being sexy. About Ms. Aglukkaq, Ms. Raitt said, "Oh. Leona. I'm so disappointed." Ms. MacDonnell said, "I wonder if it's her staff trying to shield her from it or whether she is just terrified."

Ms. Raitt replied: "I think her staff is trying to shield her. Oh God. She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House yesterday, or two days ago, that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

This is irresponsible? Disparaging? Disgusting? This is what prompted Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe to yesterday invoke the spectre of breast-cancer patients needing tests being told that a cabinet minister called their disease sexy; now, that's disgusting.

Ms. Raitt's brother Colin MacCormack died of lung cancer (caused by PCBs and dioxins, she told the Toronto Star's Rick Brennan last fall). His death at the age of 37 pushed her to get a master's in chemistry specializing in environmental biochemical toxicology; you think she doesn't know that cancer isn't sexy?

You should hear what women say in private - about friends they love, about colleagues they admire, let alone about men they might like to shag, strangers, or say, bosses. You should hear what editors say at news meetings, and how, while deciding which stories go where in the next day's paper, they describe those stories. You think they aren't sometimes called sexy?

The Canadian media made of the proverbial molehill this sad little mountain, the story feeding on itself, the language growing more outrageous and more outraged, with each news cycle. The politicians played along because that's what they do. The result is simply dispiriting.

I thought Ms. Raitt should have resigned when Ms. MacDonnell left those confidential papers behind, and regretted it was her young aide who caught the axe instead. (In fairness to Ms. Raitt, she offered her resignation but the Prime Minister wouldn't accept it. In fairness to me, I didn't know then that Ms. MacDonnell is whatever the opposite of a kleptomaniac is.) I don't think Ms. Raitt ought to offer it again.

And I don't think she should do the Canadian thing and apologize. To whom and for what? To Ms. Aglukkaq, for calling her capable? To cancer patients, for calling the isotope shortage a sexy issue? For using in private language so temperate most of us would be proud to have used it in public?

What a nation of ninnies we have become.

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