Thursday, June 02, 2005

Reuters: Harper defends Grewal's actions

Harper defends Grewal's actions

Jim Young/Reuters

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is defending MP Gurmant Grewal's secret tape-recording of discussions with senior Liberals despite widespread uneasiness about the sting operation among fellow Tories. Harper said that when he was first informed last month of Grewal's actions, he didn't encourage or discourage the Tory MP from British Columbia.

But yesterday he said Grewal had a right to surreptitiously record the talks with members of Prime Minister Paul Martin's government about possibly defecting to the Liberals. "In this business, you assume you are on the record at all times," Harper said.

The Conservatives continued to insist the tapes proved Liberals at the highest levels of the government were offering plum posts to steal away Tory MPs and that Martin's chief of staff, Tim Murphy, should step down pending an investigation. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe also revealed yesterday that he asked the RCMP to probe whether the negotiations between Grewal and the Liberals crossed a legal line.

Despite Harper's defence of Grewal, other Conservatives have expressed doubts about the ethics of Grewal's behaviour. "I don't think that one-sided taping of conversations is something that we should brag about or be doing on an ongoing basis," said John Williams (Edmonton-St. Albert). "I wouldn't do it."

Conservative James Moore (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam) admitted he, too, was uneasy at Grewal secretly recording his negotiations with the Liberals. "I don't think it helps the atmosphere of a minority Parliament ... to be secretly taping conversations," he said.

And reports from the closed-door Tory caucus meeting said some MPs sharply criticized Grewal for putting all politicians' reputations at risk by the questionable sting tactic. For the second straight day, Grewal did not attend the daily question period in the Commons.

Harper said Grewal informed him on May 16 that he was talking with Martin's government about switching sides in the Commons. That was two days before Grewal revealed the existence of the tapes. Harper had no doubt Grewal was faking his offer to jump to the Liberals, who were desperate for a few votes to hang on to power in a looming confidence vote, the Tory leader remarked.

But Harper said he didn't signal his approval or disapproval of Grewal's bid to catch Liberals offering him a deal. "That was not the subject of our conversation," Harper said as he answered questions for the first time yesterday about the newly released transcripts.

Harper was careful, however, to point out that, when he had been asked by Grewal if the Conservative MP should try to lure Martin into a similar conversation, "I said no."

Harper said the Liberals had made a similar offer to Tory MP Inky Mark to cross the floor in exchange for a posting but Mark had no proof when the government denied it had happened. "Recently with Inky Mark, they denied in the past the attempt to buy off members of Parliament. They've lied about that," Harper said. The recordings, partly in Punjabi and partly in English, cover Grewal's discussions over three days with Murphy and Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh.

Yesterday, Dosanjh said the tapes released by Grewal were not an accurate record.

"Let me first tell you: Mr. Grewal and the Tories have had 14 days in secret to fiddle with these tapes and we've had one day to look at them," he said. "And I can tell you that the translation is inaccurate in places from my knowledge of my own mother tongue, Punjabi, and from my recollection of the conversation in English and in Punjabi. Any reasonable person could come to a conclusion, a strong conclusion, that these tapes may have been altered."

Dosanjh put out an analysis of Grewal's transcript noting alleged errors. For instance, Dosanjh said the transcript doesn't record Grewal's expressed desire for a Senate seat.

But the Tories scoffed at Dosanjh's assertions. NDP Leader Jack Layton said someone at arm's length from Parliament needs to sift through the "very damaging and disturbing" conversations. The NDP yesterday formally asked federal ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro to probe the behaviour of Grewal, Dosanjh and Murphy, whose conduct goes beyond the usual "rough and tumble of politics," said Layton. "What we're seeing here begins to talk about positions and votes," he said. "I think everyone in this process has plenty to answer for."

Meanwhile, House Leader Tony Valeri said for the first time that the government may keep MPs sitting beyond June 23 — the scheduled start of Parliament's summer break — to try to pass two budget implementation bills.