Ottawa’s ‘sexy’ scandal

Lisa Raitt is known for her confidence. But how much trouble can she handle?

Ottawa’s ‘sexy’ scandalLisa Raitt understands. It frustrates her. But she knows what it means to be in a position like hers—the authority, the scrutiny, the scorn, the conflict. “There were people who called politicians in Ottawa and demanded that I be fired. I don’t know who. Nobody ever names names . . . I wish they would,” she once told a reporter. “I don’t mix personalities with business, and I don’t want to seem like I am whining. I’m not whining, but it does bug me. But I don’t hold any grudges. This is the big leagues.”

Of course, that was nearly six years ago, when Raitt was in charge of the Toronto Port Authority. Long before she got to Ottawa. Even longer before she and a close aide went to a network television studio in the capital to explain the government’s handling of a national health crisis, arriving with a binder full of confidential briefing notes and leaving without it. This time, Raitt stood and faced her accusers in person, the Speaker naming names as he introduced one opposition MP after another who wanted the natural resources minister fired. Raitt stood and, as she has many times since being elected the MP for Halton last fall, answered calmly and confidently, her assurances only periodically peppered with a patronizing put-down. “Mr. Speaker, I am a little concerned with the language being utilized by the member opposite,” she lamented after the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair had referred to her disgraced assistant as subservient. “The people who work for us on the Hill work very hard.”

If there had been one distinguishing characteristic of Lisa Raitt since her arrival on Parliament Hill, it was this poise, this confidence. Few of even the more experienced members of cabinet seem so self-assured amid the carnival of question period. But then, if Raitt is new to this place, she is hardly new to this stuff. Only now, and in dizzying succession, have problems old and new converged to threaten a promising political career—testing to what degree political skill matters when an individual is beset by both personal scandal and potential crisis.

Originally from Nova Scotia, she was the youngest of seven children. She studied first at St. Francis Xavier, then went to the University of Guelph to study environmental biochemical toxicology after a brother died of lung cancer—a fact that may cast in a strange light her recently revealed assessment that an isotope shortage presented a “sexy” issue on which she could advance her career. After next attending law school at York University—where she met her husband, David Raitt, now a comedy writer and improv actor—she was called to the bar in 1998.

She joined the port authority, a newly created Crown corporation, a year later and rose quickly through the ranks, serving as chief counsel, harbourmaster and then president and CEO. Though also notable for an ill-fated attempt to establish ferry service between Toronto and Rochester, N.Y., her tenure would be defined by an epic battle over the future of Toronto’s island airport—a dispute that would eventually involve Mayor David Miller, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Air Canada, multi-million-dollar lawsuits and allegations of mismanagement and impropriety, not to mention warnings of air and noise pollution. By Raitt’s own aforementioned assessment, it put her in the “big leagues.” And by any objective measure she was winning. In October 2006, with protesters demonstrating on shore, Porter Airlines took its maiden voyage to Ottawa.

Mark McQueen, chair of the port authority board, demurs when asked about Raitt’s time at the TPA. But his refusal to comment is still gushing. “I’ve had the pleasure to work with several political stars over the years,” he writes via email, “and as a rule I don’t talk to the media about them.” Dennis Mills, the former Liberal MP for Toronto-Danforth and a staunch advocate of the island airport, is less reserved. “I’ve known her for 12 years and I’ve always enjoyed her professionalism. She’s a person that knows how to get things done,” enthuses Mills, who says he tried to recruit Raitt to the Liberal side.

Even Layton, a former Toronto city councillor who beat Mills in Toronto-Danforth and opposed expansion of the airport, concedes her abilities while objecting to the methods—including a defamation lawsuit launched against a citizens’ group that opposed the island airport—of her administration. “She plays to win,” he says. “They were no different to deal with than dealing with Walmart.” One media account from 2007 has Raitt, staring down a public meeting full of dissenters, seeming smart and charming and proving “marvelously adept at deflecting criticism and spinning reasonable excuses for seemingly inexcusable activities.”

Two days before Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament last fall, Raitt was named the Conservative candidate for the suburban Toronto riding of Halton, charged with unseating Garth Turner, the former Conservative whose willingness to challenge Harper’s authority had resulted in his dismissal from caucus. Raitt linked her political turn to Conservative positions on the economy, trade and transportation, but also directly to Harper. “I really like this Prime Minister,” she said. “It comes down to leadership for me.” Though the appointment angered some local Conservatives, Raitt won a tense and personal race by more than 7,000 votes. And six months short of her 41st birthday, the mother of two young boys joined Stephen Harper’s cabinet as his second minister of natural resources.

She was given the Commons seat visible on television over the Prime Minister’s left shoulder, a spot once occupied by the similarly touted Rona Ambrose, and by spring she was seen as a rising star. “If she spoke decent French,” hailed one columnist, “there’d be legitimate buzz over the Toronto lawyer’s leadership potential.” Then it all went a bit sideways.

First, she and her 26-year-old director of communications, Jasmine MacDonnell, left a binder full of documents labelled “secret” in an Ottawa newsroom. Raitt offered the Prime Minister her resignation, but it was MacDonnell who lost her job. “I feel badly that she’s had her first political bruise,” says Mills of Raitt, “but because she will have a long political future, this bruise will serve her well as her career develops.”

This past Monday brought new bruises, though. Word first came that a reporter had come into possession of a digital recorder, left behind in a House of Commons washroom by MacDonnell, which included an inadvertently recorded conversation in which Raitt mused months earlier that the combination of “radioactive leaks” and “cancer” associated with the troubled nuclear reactor at Chalk River made for a “sexy” issue on which she might prove herself. In Toronto, NDP MP Olivia Chow, Layton’s wife, convened a press conference to announce she was asking the auditor general to investigate various allegations of mismanagement at the port authority during Raitt’s reign—charges McQueen dismissed as “incomplete, unsupported, untrue and, in some cases, defamatory.” And in between, Raitt had had to stand in the House and answer for the potential health crisis unfolding on her watch.

Raitt spent her first few months assuaging concerns about new troubles at Chalk River—a major global source of the isotopes used for tests to detect cancer and heart ailments—but a heavy water leak in May necessitated a total shutdown. When the reactor was turned off in November 2007, the Prime Minister loudly warned that a prolonged shutdown could “jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians.” However better prepared the Conservatives and Raitt may be this time, whatever help may be available from international sources, the potential for trouble seems great. “It’s a catastrophe. It’s a pure catastrophe. It’s absolutely not under control,” says Dr. Jean-Luc Urbain, president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine. “The government doesn’t have a short-term solution, doesn’t have a medium- or long-term solution.”

And though fault may extend well beyond her time as natural resources minister, the “sexy” issue she once saw as her next conquest will severely test the persuasiveness of her poise. “Canadians and political people always appreciate those who dust themselves off from their mistakes and work harder to be better,” says Tim Powers, the Conservative strategist. “How she reacts is crucial here. Cape Bretoners are tough and determined. That works to her benefit.”

On Monday afternoon she was still the minister in charge. And, amid trouble on three fronts, she was reacting in just the sort of way the Prime Minister prefers. Under insistent questioning from Michael Ignatieff, she first laid blame with the Liberal government that preceded her, including the “five Liberal cabinet ministers” who failed to pre-empt the problem. Then, with the next breath, she took a gratuitous swipe at her tormentor. “I assume,” she finished, “that the leader of the Opposition does not know because he was not in the country at the time.” The Conservatives stood to cheer.

If this is the big leagues, she knows the game well.

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