Minister sets off firestorm; MPs say Tory tactics smack of McCarthyism after late-night ouster of nuclear safety commission boss

The Ottawa Citizen: Juliet O'Neill - January 17, 2008

Opposition MPs accused Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn yesterday of trying to cover up his own negligence and wrongdoing with a witch-hunt that led to the extraordinary late-night firing of Linda Keen, Canada's chief nuclear watchdog.

MPs expressed shock that the government would fire an independent regulator at 10 p.m., on the eve of her scheduled testimony to the House of Commons natural resources committee, which is probing the government's handling of the medical isotopes shortage last month.

Ms. Keen cancelled her appearance at the committee session, where opposition MPs raked Mr. Lunn over the coals for piling all the blame on her when the government and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. should shoulder some responsibility for the controversy.

Ms. Keen, who remains a member of the nuclear safety commission, was invited to testify Jan. 29, along with the former chairman of AECL and the auditor general.

Liberal MP David McGuinty charged that the "dark of night" firing of an independent official who stood up to government pressure smacked of McCarthyism -- the blacklisting of Communists in the United States in the 1940s.

"These are the kind of Republican tactics this town has never seen before, that are new to Canadians," Mr. McGuinty said.

Liberal Omar Alghabra accused Mr. Lunn of "blatant political interference" in the quasi-judicial commission.

Describing Ms. Keen as "someone who respects the law and does what she has to do," Bloc Québécois MP Claude DeBellefeuille said Mr. Lunn had "shaken public confidence" in the independence of the nuclear watchdog from political pressure.

At a hearing where he repeatedly said "people would die" if the government had not stepped in with legislation forcing the reopening of a nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes, Mr. Lunn accused Ms. Keen of lacking leadership during a "life and death" crisis for cancer and other patients depending on isotopes for testing and treatment.

Opposition MPs asserted repeatedly that Mr. Lunn knew or should have known earlier than he says he did that an isotopes shortage was brewing. Mr. Lunn vigorously denied that an auditor general's report he received last September contained signals of potential problems with isotope production. He also denied statements by former AECL chairman Michael Burns that he briefed Mr. Lunn on Nov. 22 about the extended reactor shutdown and provided subsequent updates.

Mr. Lunn did say his department was informed Nov. 22 that the reactor would not be reopened after a scheduled four-day routine maintenance shutdown and he submitted an e-mail from AECL as evidence to the committee.

However, he stood by his statement in the Commons of last month that he was not aware of the seriousness of the situation until Dec. 3. He said there was "no sense of urgency" conveyed in e-mails informing the government of the extended shutdown, first into December and then into January.

"Your plea of ignorance is not an excuse," Mr. Alghabra, Liberal natural resources critic, told Mr. Lunn. "When you talk about holding people to account, why don't you start with yourself?"

Liberal MP Lloyd St. Amand said Mr. Lunn's telephone calls to Ms. Keen urging her to clear the way for the reactor reopening in early December were tantamount "to telephoning a judge," clearly violating the prime minister's code of conduct for ministers.

Mr. Lunn several times declared there was "absolutely no interference" by the government in the commission's affairs.

"At no point, at any time, did I suggest what decision she should take," Mr. Lunn asserted. Pressed for precise grounds for her firing, Mr. Lunn said Ms. Keen could have more quickly convened a meeting to accept AECL's case for restarting the reactor and she could have amended AECL's licence "on her own accord."

Mr. Lunn said Ms. Keen had lost the confidence of the government, but he had no lost the confidence of the prime minister and would remain in his job, even if the committee formally called for his resignation -- as the Liberals and New Democratic Party already have.

"The manner in which the president exercised her executive role, in particular, her lack of leadership during the extended shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, does not meet the very high standards of conduct that the government and Canadians expect from public office holders who are responsible for the executive management of institutions charged with safeguarding the health and safety of all Canadians," Mr. Lunn said, reading from a prepared statement at the opening of the hearing.

Ms. DeBellefeuille took exception to Mr. Lunn's claim that all parties had shown a loss of confidence in Ms. Keen since they approved Bill C-38 to override the commission and reopen the reactor.

"We were torn between two evils and we chose the lesser evil," she told the minister. "It was very difficult to oppose that legislation."

Green leader Elizabeth May called for a public inquiry into the nuclear industry and for Mr. Lunn's resignation.

"Despite Minister Lunn's attempts to make the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission the scapegoat for the medical isotope crisis, the real culprits are within AECL," she said.

The government had politicized the commission by firing Ms. Keen, Greenpeace Canada, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and EcoJustice said in a joint statement.

Michael Binder, an assistant deputy minister of the Department of Industry, has been named interim president of the commission.

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