PM dismisses fury over Raitt's isotopes comments as 'cheap politics'

A defiant Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his embattled natural resources minister on Tuesday, dismissing the opposition's call for him to fire Lisa Raitt over controversial comments caught on tape as "cheap politics."

Ignatieff: minister saw isotopes shortage as 'opportunity for career advancement'

Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt responds to a question during Tuesday's question period. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
A defiant Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his embattled natural resources minister on Tuesday, dismissing the opposition's call for him to fire Lisa Raitt over controversial comments caught on tape as "cheap politics."

Raitt offered no apology on Tuesday for referring to the medical isotopes shortage as a "sexy" problem that she could take the credit for fixing.

During Tuesday's question period in the House of Commons, opposition leaders decried her comments as callous to cancer patients across Canada who are waiting for treatment.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told the House the comments show the minister saw the isotopes crisis as an "opportunity for career advancement."

Harper told MPs that Raitt and the government have been "working around the clock" to improve the "very delicate" worldwide isotopes supply since 2007.

"That's what the minister is doing, that's what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics," the prime minister told the House.

Ignatieff fired back, saying: "The cheapest politics there is, is to call a health crisis a career opportunity."

'Nothing sexy' about cancer: Layton

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called Lisa Raitt's recorded remarks 'arrogant' and 'cynical.' ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))
New Democrat Leader Jack Layton said Raitt's comments show she "isn’t worthy of her duties" and asked why Harper hasn't demanded she apologize to Canadians.

"What the hell is wrong with these people?" Layton said, which prompted a rebuke from House Speaker Peter Milliken. "There's nothing sexy about losing a family member to cancer."

But Raitt expressed no remorse and dismissed Layton's suggestion that the government didn't care about cancer patients as "ludicrous."

She said Canada has taken a "leadership role" on the isotopes shortage and said the opposition parties were the ones using it for political opportunism.

"Every member on this side of the House, unfortunately … has been touched by cancer and that’s what motivates us to care for the health and safety of Canadians," she said.

"And we are working diligently and very hard on this issue to make sure that we get action done, instead of rhetoric and conspiracy theories and personal smears."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Harper now has "no choice" but to fire Raitt after refusing her offer to resign last week over misplaced secret documents on Canada's nuclear industry.

"What’s he waiting for?" Duceppe told the House.

Isotope shipments won't arrive this week

Opposition parties have repeatedly lambasted Raitt in recent weeks over her handling of the May 15 shutdown of the Crown company-operated nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont., which usually produces up to a third of the world's medical isotopes.

The shutdown has left doctors and medical researchers scrambling for a scarce supply from the world's four other isotope-producing reactors.

Medical isotopes — tiny radioactive particles that can be injected into the body — are part of the standard treatment for some cancers and have brought medical imaging to new levels.

Earlier Tuesday, health-care officials said smaller hospitals across the country will run out of medical isotopes this week, leaving many cancer and heart patients scrambling to find alternatives.

The head of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine said smaller hospitals have been told they won't receive isotope shipments from nuclear reactors in the Netherlands and South Africa on Thursday and Friday.

Dr. Christopher O'Brien said that means some patients booked on those days for diagnostic scans to detect cancer and heart ailments may have to be rescheduled.

'Unfortunate' wording, says PM's spokesman

In the recording — made public by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald after the Nova Scotia Supreme Court rejected an injunction application on Monday — Raitt discusses the medical isotope shortage with her former head of communications, Jasmine MacDonnell, during a car ride the two shared in Victoria on Jan. 30.

In the recording, MacDonnell said the isotope issue is "confusing to a lot of people."

"But it's sexy," Raitt said. "Radioactive leaks. Cancer."

Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief spokesman, told CBC News on Tuesday that Raitt's statements were "an unfortunate choice of wording in a recording — that is one word in 5½ hours of tape recording."

"I don't think anybody would use a word like that to describe it in public. This was a private conversation," Teneycke said.

Health minister slighted

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, left, and her former press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell, are seen leaving a news conference in Ottawa last month. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

In the recording, Raitt says, "You know what solves this problem? Money. And if it's just about money, we'll figure it out. It's not a moral issue."

On the recording, Raitt also expresses doubts about the abilities of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to handle "hot" issues, saying her staff "is trying to shield her."

Raitt's comments about Aglukkaq will be resolved between the two privately, Teneycke said.

"It's a very embarrassing situation, clearly, to have a private conversation like this in the public realm," he said.

Raitt's office issued a statement on Monday night saying the minister has personally called Aglukkaq to apologize. During question period, Raitt praised Aglukkaq for doing an "excellent job" on the isotopes shortage.

Teneycke added he disagrees that the problems at the aging nuclear reactor are just about money.

"If you had all the money in the world, you couldn't build a new nuclear reactor in the kind of timelines that we're dealing with to try to get isotope production up and running again," he said.

PM hasn't spoken to Raitt

Harper has confidence in both ministers and their ability to handle the isotope shortage issue, Teneycke said. The prime minister has not spoken with Raitt since the recording was released, nor has she offered to resign, he added.

Raitt offered her resignation to Harper last week after it was revealed documents related to Canada's nuclear industry were left behind at CTV's Ottawa news bureau for almost a week without anyone in the government noticing.

The audiotape recording, which was made inadvertently, was released after Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Gerald Moir rejected an injunction application by MacDonnell on Monday that was aimed at blocking the newspaper from publishing a story about its contents.

MacDonnell, who resigned as Raitt's head of communications last week amid an uproar over lost documents, reportedly left the recorder at an Ottawa media event and did not return calls aimed at trying to return it.

Teneycke said the government did not participate in trying to block the release of the tape. "No one in this government or in the Conservative party provided financial support … nor … would we ever advise someone to block this," Teneycke said.

Moir ruled it was not a private conversation because of the people involved. He also said it was wrong to deprive the media of the information, given that the medical isotope shortage is a public-interest issue, and a matter of life and death for many cancer patients.

With files from The Canadian Press