Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Harper's Hulk Persona Emerges

Now I know why it is when Harper stands up to answer a question he buttons up his suit coat. He is trying to keep his hulk persona from bursting out! While I can understand Harper's wanting to solve the medical shortage of isotopes at the same time it is surely dangerous to over-ride a safety body and hardly appropriate to make snide remarks about its being Liberal appointed. Ignatieff certainly managed to puncture Harper's cool and get that Hulk persona expanding. The regulatory group has pointed out that the CHalk River plant is in violation of its licence.This upgrade should have been done long ago and provision made to take care of the isotope situation during the shutdown. This is from the National Post.

Harper's Hulk persona emerges
PM vents at questions on isotope shortage

John Ivison, National Post
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Courtesy of MDS NordionThe Chalk River nuclear reactor, pictured, produces half the world's supply of isotopes.
OTTAWA -Successful Prime Ministers tend to calm things down, rather than stir them up. By and large, Stephen Harper has managed his anger and not risen to the taunts of opposition parties.

But sometimes his rage builds to the stage he can't contain it and he delivers a response that should only be shown on television after the watershed, lest it frighten the kids. The time when he linked the Liberal vote against anti-terror provisions to an RCMP interview with the father-in-law of Sikh MP Navdeep Bains over the Air India bombing springs immediately to mind.

During Question Period yesterday, we had a fresh instance of the Prime Minister pulling his Incredible Hulk impersonation.

Mr. Harper vented at questions from Liberal MPs over the global shortage of medical isotopes because of problems with the Chalk River nuclear reactor.

The reactor has been closed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which says several new safety standards need to be met before it can be re-opened. The earliest the CNSC's demands can be met is December 20. Meantime, 30,000 patients in Canada, 400,000 in the U.S. and untold thousands more around the world are having decisions on their treatment deferred because of the shortage (isotopes can spot cancers that other types of tests cannot find and Chalk River produces half the world's supply).

Both the government and the reactor's operator, Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., say sufficient repairs have been made that allow for its safe operation. Late yesterday, the government said it would introduce emergency legislation to compel the restart of the reactor for 120 days to allow the production of more isotope, which was expected to pass with the help of the NDP.

Significantly, it was Michael Ignatieff, standing in for Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who got under Mr. Harper's skin. Mr. Ignatieff used centre stage to great effect, giving the Liberal caucus a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. When Mr. Harper assured MPs that the reactor was safe to be restarted, Mr. Ignatieff hit back, with a wit that Mr. Dion would give his wisdom teeth for: "Since when is the Prime Minister of Canada an expert on nuclear safety?"

The deputy Liberal leader was clearly enjoying his place in the sun and that might explain why the Prime Minister was as angry as anyone can remember seeing him in the House. Senior Conservatives say the two men had met and agreed to a deal, whereby the Liberals took "a pound of flesh" from the government in the House over the mismanagement of the affair (it took the Conservatives three weeks to react) but agreed to pass the emergency legislation. But the deal fell apart. Before last night's vote, the Liberals said they first wanted to hear from the regulator, AECL and the ministers of Health (Tony Clement) and Natural Resources (Gary Lunn) before deciding how to vote.

Mr. Harper seems to believe the Liberals' intransigence is somehow linked to the position of Linda Keen, chairwoman of CNSC, who was a former associate deputy minister of Natural Resources when Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale was minister.

"They're protecting an appointee with a long connection to Goodale -- a connection so solid that they pushed through her reappointment just hours before the May 2005 confidence vote they nearly lost. And in the process, they're risking the health of tens of thousands of Canadians. Last week, they wanted us to act. This week, all they want is to protect one of their own," said a senior Conservative source.

In Question Period, the Prime Minister did himself few favours by referring to the "Liberal appointed Nuclear Safety Commission" which is "jeopardizing the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians".

This seems a stretch. Mr. Ignatieff may relish being given the train set to play with for the week while his boss is in Bali but even the most cynical find it hard to believe he is willing to prolong the agony of uncertainty suffered by cancer patients for political gain. "We want action as fast as we can and it is absurd to politicize this, as the Prime Minister has done," the Liberal deputy leader said.

Mr. Harper may not believe this to be the case, which would explain the white heat of his anger. But there is substance to Mr. Ignatieff 's position that the government's legislation would suspend the regulatory regime that has kept the country safe for 50 years. "It's a serious business," he said. "Under the current legislation, we're giving the regulator no role whatsoever. I'm not saying we will vote against it but we've got to do our jobs."

No one doubts Mr. Harper is driven by the desire to save lives. Who would be a Prime Minister in such a situation, damned if you restart a reactor that may not be 100% safe, and damned if you don't by condemning thousands to the living hell of an uncertain cancer diagnosis?

But if he has to shovel blame anywhere, it should be toward his own ministers. This crisis has been telegraphed for years, not least by Ms. Keen, who said nearly three years ago that the situation at Chalk River "does not give me a very warm and cosy feeling."

This is about the same level of comfort that those of us living in the Ottawa Valley are going to have when Chalk River fires up again. Let's hope Mr. Ignatieff is wrong and that Mr. Harper's expertise does indeed extend to nuclear physics.

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