A star is born

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The Gazette, Sunday, June 7, 2009

In the matter of Lisa Raitt and the sensitive documents left behind at CTV's Ottawa television bureau, Stephen Harper did the right thing in not throwing her under the bus.

For one thing, Harper is perceived as having a serious loyalty deficit, and standing by one of his ministers stands him in good stead with his caucus and party. For another, it was an innocent mistake her communications director made in leaving behind a briefing book with sensitive documents on nuclear reactors and the shutdown at Chalk River.

In the Westminster tradition of ministerial accountability, Raitt did the right thing in offering to resign, and Harper did the right thing in rejecting her resignation.

Raitt also did a good job of staying on message on Wednesday afternoon, when a howling parliamentary mob called for her resignation.

"This is a serious matter," she told the House. "Clear procedures were not followed in this case. Corrective action has been taken. I offered to resign if the prime minister felt it was necessary and he did not accept it. The person responsible for handling the documents offered to resign and I did accept that resignation."

All three opposition parties went at her hard from every imaginable angle, with the best quotes opposition research could dig up. But nobody could shake her off her message track. That was her story and she stuck to throughout a stormy question period.

What happened? Raitt was doing an interview at CTV's Ottawa bureau, and her communications director, Jasmine MacDonnell, forgot a briefing book in the Green Room. It sat there for six days before CTV knew what it had, because reporters generally don't frequent the Green Room, only guests and makeup artists do.

Of course, CTV could have done the elegant thing and simply returned the briefing book to its proper owner, but then there wouldn't have been a story about secret documents being left behind. It should be noted that there is a propensity within the bureaucracy to classify all documents as either confidential or secret.

The opposition gleefully alleged a double standard in that Maxime Bernier was fired a year ago for leaving a Foreign Affairs briefing book behind at the home of his then-girlfriend, Julie Couillard.

That was different, Harper said. Raitt was working. Bernier was, well, visiting.

This was the one point in the story where Harper got tripped up in his own logic. When he said, in dumping Bernier last year, that all ministers were responsible for their documents, it was his way of making it about the briefing book rather than the biker babe. And, of course, in going to Bernier, this gave the TV networks permission to run the famous arrival shot of Bernier and Couillard at a Rideau Hall cabinet shuffle. Her dress became the most famous since Monica Lewinsky's.

The slagging of Bernier was too much for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who normally thrives on the cut and thrust of question period.

"Gutter, you're in the gutter," he yelled across the floor, putting his hand down on the carpet. "You're right down in the gutter."

This is the sort of comment or aside that is recorded in Hansard only as: "Some Honourable members: Oh! Oh!"

The more Raitt came under attack, the better she stood her ground, and the more her Tory colleagues cheered her on. She scored a couple of direct hits off the NDP's Tom Mulcair, who specializes in sanctimonious outrage. When he referred to the 26-year-old MacDonnell as an "an underling, a subservient person" taking the fall, Raitt replied she was "concerned about the tone in which the honourable member has put this forward, indicating that perhaps only a woman could be subservient." The Tory benches erupted in a standing ovation.

Practically fulminating in reply, Mulcair dismissed this as "pure unmitigated nonsense. The reason she is still there is that the prime minister publishes rules for confidentiality of documents and does not apply them. He said that was a warning to all ministers. She is still there. It is unacceptable. She should resign and leave immediately."

To which she calmly replied: "One thing I have learned in the House is that just because one yells louder does not make it any more compelling an argument."

In that moment in the House, a star was born.

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