OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused the resignation of Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt on Wednesday after a binder containing confidential nuclear documents was left in a television studio.
The documents were left in a CTV studio after a visit by Raitt and at least one other official. CTV said it had kept the documents for six days to see if anybody would try to retrieve them, and no one did.
“This is a serious matter. Clear procedures were not followed in this case. Corrective action has been taken,” Raitt told Parliament in a question period dominated by the issue.
“I offered to resign if the prime minister felt it necessary. He did not accept it. The person responsible for handling the documents offered their resignation, and I did accept it.”
Government officials would not name the political attache who had accompanied Raitt to the television studio.
The opposition said the incident showed incompetence on the part of the minority Conservative government, already under fire for its handling of the economic crisis.
“The issue here is an issue of competence, and not just competence in relation to this minister but competence in relation to the whole government,” said Michael Ignatieff, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party.
A Liberal colleague was heard muttering, during the exchange between Ignatieff and Raitt, that the government was making a scapegoat of the political aide.
Ignatieff said on Tuesday he would likely decide next week whether to try to bring down the government. The Conservatives won the October election a strengthened minority, but still need the support of at least one of the three opposition parties to stay in power.
CTV said the documents detailed spending on the aging Chalk River reactor in eastern Ontario, which produces a third of the world’s medical isotopes.
Chalk River was shut down in May and will not resume production of the isotopes for at least three months. It is run by government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which Ottawa wants to break up and sell.
Chalk River produces most of the isotopes distributed by MDS Nordion, a subsidiary of Canadian health sciences company MDS Inc. The isotopes are used in medical tests and cancer treatments.
The revelation about the mislaid nuclear documents was doubly embarrassing for the Conservative government, given that former Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier was forced to resign in May 2008 after leaving secret documents in the apartment of a girlfriend who had ties to organized crime.
In his case, however, he was not accompanied by an aide.
The documents included a note listing total spending on AECL since 2006 at C$1.7 billion ($1.5 billion) and a memo characterizing this as “cleaning up a Liberal mess”. The Conservatives took over from the Liberals in early 2006.
Raitt told Parliament that amount had indeed been spent on AECL.
Should the Liberals move to bring down the government they would the support of both of the other opposition parties, and that support is by no means guaranteed.
Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson