Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Canadian PM Accused of Interfering in US Elections

Blame in Canada

By Ian Austen

Go to Original

Ottawa - It's not at all unusual for Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, and the members of his cabinet to be grilled by the opposition parties in Parliament. It isn't common, however for the partisan bickering here to be focused on the Democratic primary in the United States.

On Monday, the fighting over a report that a senior campaign official to Barack Obama had provided back-channel reassurances to the Canadian government on the North American Free Trade Agreement, erupted in Parliament as Mr. Harper fended off allegations that he was interfering in the U.S. elections and trying to undermine Mr. Obama's campaign.

The mix of the two countries' politics was prompted by the leak of a memo from Canada's consulate general in Chicago to the Associated Press. Diplomats there had met with Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who is Mr. Obama's senior economic policy adviser. NAFTA, which is as contentious among some Canadians as it with some Americans, was on the agenda.

The memo back to officials in Ottawa, which was as much a piece of analysis of Mr. Goolsbee's remarks as a reporting of the meeting, said that Mr. Obama's promise to renegotiate the trade deal "should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken the memo, and earlier reports about the meeting, as evidence that Mr. Obama's public position on the trade deal is not the same as his private view. Mr. Obama's campaign said the memo does not accurately reflect Mr. Goolsbee's remarks.

In Canada, however, interest has centered on who leaked the memo and that person's motives. Unlike Washington, Canadian government documents are protected by strict secrecy laws and rarely make their way to reporters. That has particularly been the case with Mr. Harper's Conservative government which keeps unusually tight control on information.

When question period arrived, it was Canada's leading critic of Nafta, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, who raised an ABC News report that identified Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, as the source of the leak.

"Canadians have become increasingly alarmed at reports that the prime minister's office has been interfering in the Democratic primaries with false accusations, trying to silence Barack Obama who simply wants to amend the Nafta," Mr. Layton told Parliament before demanding that Mr. Harper fire Mr. Brodie, "the source of the interference."

Mr. Harper, whose government summoned the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate other leaks, ignored Mr. Layton's suggestion about his top political aide.

Instead, Mr. Harper said the Canadian embassy in Washington "regretted the fact that information has come out that would imply that Senator Obama has been saying different things in public than in private. The government of Canada does not condone this and certainly regrets any implication."

Mr. Harper also mocked suggestions that he could undermine Mr. Obama's campaign.

"I am a little bit amused by the question of the leader of the N.D.P. who is suggesting that we are so all powerful we could interfere in the American election and pick their president for them," Mr. Harper said. "This government does not claim that kind of power."

In an interview after the exchange, Mr. Layton, whose left of center party is backed by many unions, said that he will continue to believe that Mr. Brodie was the source unless the government shows otherwise. But the Conservative government's motive, he added, was most likely its strong support for continental free trade. An earlier Conservative government negotiated Nafta as well as the free trade agreement between Canada and the United States that preceded it.

"I can only surmise that Mr. Harper wants to silence those in the U.S. Democratic race who are trying to raise issues about Nafta and, in doing so, help his Republican friends through a happy coincidence," Mr. Layton said. "Canadians would be very concerned if there were any similar attempts by Americans to influence a Canadian election."

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