Politics

Public pays for Tory 'shadow MP', Cotler says

The Conservative government is using public money to pay a 'shadow MP' in a partisan campaign targeting the coveted Montreal riding of Irwin Cotler.

Saulie Zajdel defeated as Tory candidate in Montreal, now on heritage minister's payroll

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, seen here at a press conference in his Montreal riding office last month, believes the Conservatives are taking partisan tactics too far. (CBC)

The Conservative government is using public money to pay a "shadow MP" in a partisan campaign targeting the coveted Montreal riding of Irwin Cotler, the Liberal MP fears.

For weeks, Cotler has been decrying a phone-call blitz organized by Conservatives, during which constituents of his Montreal riding were told he was about to resign.

Now he's denouncing the Tories' hiring -- as an employee of the Government of Canada -- the man he defeated as a candidate in the last election.

The governing party, which campaigned on a promise to tighten federal spending and balance the budget, is accused of employing a similar tactic in other parts of the country.

Cotler said the Tory candidate, now employed in the office of Heritage Minister James Moore, appears to be performing the duties of a member of Parliament.

He said ex-opponent Saulie Zajdel is now offering to help municipal politicians in his Montreal riding secure federal grants and services.

"We have had information conveyed to us that, in fact, he has had meetings with mayors and councillors in this riding, in which he has held out to them that he, in the course of his work, can confer a benefit upon them," Cotler said in his office Tuesday.

"What has he been hired to do and what is he, in fact, doing?... The question is whether a defeated candidate seeks to perform the duties of an MP, as a kind of shadow MP on the public purse."

Zajdel, a former Montreal city councillor, lost to Cotler in the last election by fewer than 2,500 votes and is expected to take another run for the riding.

The federal government wouldn't comment when asked about Zajdel, including what his job is and what he's paid. A spokesman for Moore said the department does not comment on internal staffing issues.

Zajdel would not return messages left at his office by The Canadian Press.

The Tories have high hopes of eventually winning the Mount Royal seat, which was once part of Pierre Trudeau's riding. A victory there would give the party their first Montreal seat in a quarter-century.

The Conservatives admitted this week to ordering numerous phone calls to homes in the riding, telling constituents their longtime MP was about to resign and a new one would be needed soon.

The party defended the phone calls, arguing the callers had every right to comment or speculate on decade-old rumours that the 71-year-old Cotler would soon resign.

But Cotler, a former justice minister, maintains he's not going anywhere and fully intends to finish his term.

Last month, Zajdel gave a 15-minute presentation to about a dozen mayors and councillors at a gathering of a Montreal-area association of suburban municipalities. The meeting was held in the Town of Mount Royal, in Cotler's riding.

The president of the mayors' group, the Association of Suburban Municipalities, said it was Zajdel who asked to meet with them.

Westmount Mayor Peter Trent, whose city sits just outside the Mount Royal riding, said Zajdel left behind brochures about the different programs available.

Trent, who has served for 12 years as mayor and another six years on council, couldn't recall such a presentation by a federal civil servant.

He said he found Zajdel's request to meet the mayors "strange."

"It's not every day that you have somebody from the government coming and saying, 'Here, you want money?' " said Trent, who added that Zajdel also requested a meeting with the cities' director generals.

"I must admit, as president, that I was a little confused as to what his role was."

Trent added that he was happy to learn about some of the programs, which include funds for arts, cultural spaces and museums.

He didn't think Zajdel acted inappropriately and said the government staffer did not raise partisan politics.

"To call that campaigning, that's a real stretch, again it's not for me to run to the aid of Saulie Zajdel," Trent said.

"I think it's a bit, really, (of) a tempest in a teapot."

Town of Mount Royal Mayor Philippe Roy, who also met with Zajdel privately, said the recently hired government staffer discussed Heritage Canada programs available for municipalities.

"It's certainly odd when a civil servant goes to meet elected officials in a context like this, but he only came to present the different Heritage Canada programs to us," said Roy, who was the only mayor present at the meeting from Cotler's riding.

"It was limited to (the programs) -- he didn't go further than that in playing the role of an MP."

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