Michael Wilson should step down as Canada's ambassador to Washington while the leaks that damaged Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign are investigated, opposition parties said Tuesday, as scrutiny moved from one of Stephen Harper's top aides to one of his high-profile political appointees.
Mr. Wilson has now publicly acknowledged that he spoke to the CTV reporter who first reported the leaks before the story aired, but refused to discuss what was said.
The Liberals say it now appears that Mr. Wilson, who was finance minister under former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, took part in political leaks that damaged a Democratic contender - and he cannot continue as Canada's chief representative in the United States until his role has been investigated.
Mr. Obama came under fire when it was reported that a senior campaign adviser told Canadian diplomats that the Illinois senator's call to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement was more politics than policy. The adviser, Austan Goolsbee, said his comments were misrepresented by a Canadian diplomat.
A series of leaks of Mr. Goolsbee's remarks, made in a private meeting to Canada's consul-general in Chicago, Georges Rioux, hurt Mr. Obama in last week's Ohio primary. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, returned to the so-called NAFTA-gate incident yesterday as she bashed Mr. Obama for policies that are "just words."
The Canadian leaks began as a remark that Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, made to CTV reporters during the Feb. 26 budget lock-up.
Mr. Brodie told the reporters that Ms. Clinton's campaign contacted Canadian diplomats to say her calls for renegotiating NAFTA were not serious. When CTV's Washington reporter, Tom Clark, went to air with a story the next day, he reported it was Mr. Obama's campaign that had contacted diplomats.
Mr. Wilson has now publicly acknowledged that he spoke to Mr. Clark before the report aired, although he said what they discussed is private.
"We have three leaks with a desired result to interfere and influence the Democratic primary," Liberal MP Navdeep Bains said in the Commons Tuesday. "Will the Prime Minister confirm that Ian Brodie and Michael Wilson are under investigation and that they have stepped aside? If not, why not?"
Mr. Bains said later that Mr. Wilson should "resign" at least until the leaks have been investigated. But he charged that the government is just stonewalling in the hope the controversy will blow over.
"He should step aside until the investigation is complete. Unfortunately this government is not responding," Mr. Bains said.
Mr. Harper has said that the Privy Council Office, the central government department that reports to the Prime Minister, will carry out an internal investigation of the leaks.
But PCO spokesman Mark Giles would not say yesterday whether Mr. Wilson has been interviewed as part of that probe.
The internal inquiry is being headed by Marc Tardif, the director of security operations at the Privy Council. But the NDP has argued that Mr. Tardif is several levels below Mr. Brodie, who is Mr. Harper's top political aide. And Mr. Wilson is perhaps Mr. Harper's most high-profile Tory political appointee.
In the Commons, NDP justice critic Joe Comartin called for the RCMP to be asked to investigate Mr. Wilson and others.
"Mr. Wilson is now hiding behind a so-called private conversation to deny any wrong. That is not good enough," Mr. Comartin said.
"An internal probe by the Prime Minister's staff will not get to the bottom of this scandal. When will the RCMP be called in to investigate the actions of Ian Brodie, Michael Wilson and all the other actors in the NAFTA leak?"
Mr. Comartin noted that the government has failed to reinstate sections of the Security of Information Act that were struck down by a court ruling in 2006. That means that those behind politically motivated leaks might escape charges for indiscretions that were once illegal.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson replied that the government is "certainly prepared" to propose a new bill to fill the gap in the law, but provided no specifics.