OTTAWA — Rookie cabinet minister and rising star Lisa Raitt will keep her job despite a political uproar over a security breach involving secret government documents.
The natural resources minister said Wednesday that she offered to resign after CTV News revealed that a binder of documents on Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. was left at its Ottawa bureau for nearly a week.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to let her step down, but did accept the resignation of her assistant, Jasmine MacDonnell, who took responsibility for the gaffe.
It’s Raitt’s first big stumble since Harper brought her into his cabinet last fall. Her handling of the Chalk River nuclear reactor shutdown has — until now — gone off without any major hitches.
There have even been whispers around Parliament Hill that she may one day vie to lead the Conservative party.
Opposition MPs immediately accused the government of sacrificing the aide to save one of its brightest performers.
They questioned why Harper wouldn’t accept Raitt’s resignation, noting that Maxime Bernier resigned as foreign affairs minister last year after it was revealed that he left sensitive government documents at his ex-girlfriend’s home.
When he accepted Bernier’s resignation, Harper said it’s up to cabinet ministers to protect sensitive documents.
“Ministers are always responsible for the protection of classified documents,” Harper told the House of Commons last June.
“The minister admitted that he failed to protect classified documents. That is why he offered his resignation and why I accepted it.”
On Wednesday, Harper told reporters in Quebec City that the difference between Bernier and Raitt was the circumstances in which the papers were misplaced.
He said Raitt was working at the time and could reasonably expect her staff would be responsible for her documents.
“In the case of Minister Bernier, his actions were much more personal in nature and that was the difference in the responsibility.”
However, the prime minister’s reasoning appears to contradict a guidebook given to cabinet ministers last year.
The document, titled “A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State,” says ministers are personally accountable for cabinet confidences and other sensitive information.
The guide says ministers must immediately notify their deputies if they compromise the security of those documents. That didn’t happen.
Kory Teneycke, a spokesman for the prime minister, told The Canadian Press that no one knew the documents were missing until CTV broadcast the story Tuesday night.
“It’s really two failures in terms of procedures,” Teneycke said. “One is leaving the documents in the first place, and the second is the fact that their absence was not reported.”
Liberal MP David McGuinty questioned how the missing documents could go unnoticed for six days.
“It speaks to the question of whether or not they knew about this binder having been missing for five or six days, or not,” he said.
“The minister has to come clean and tell the Canadian people what’s gone on here.”
CTV said the AECL documents list funding details about the Crown-owned corporation and include a handwritten note that puts total funding since 2006 at $1.7 billion. There was also a talking-point memo describing the spending as “cleaning up a Liberal mess.”
CTV said a federal government employee picked up the documents Wednesday morning after a story aired the night before.
Bernier also waded into the debate Wednesday, saying it should be up to Raitt to decide whether to step down.
“I think she has good judgment. She must use her judgment like I did in my circumstance,” he said.
“I did what I had to do at my time. I assumed my own responsibility. She’s going to do what she thinks is good for the country and for her.”