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Sgro and some in the press want Tories to move on from Strippergate   

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:00 p.m. November 26, 2004]

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro responds to her critics in question period Friday.

OTTAWA — For two weeks now, a number of top reporters, led by CanWest News, in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the Conservatives in question period have been picking away at Immigration Minister Judy Sgro on a daily basis.          

Sgro has been under more sustained pressure from the media and the opposition than any minister has since Paul Martin became prime minister less than a year ago.

At the centre of the controversy is a 25-year-old Romanian exotic dancer who worked on Sgro's campaign and was given a ministerial permit to keep her in the country just days before the election. 

Sgro admits to signing the permit but said she did not know the dancer was in her campaign office.

But since the story first broke two weeks ago, new developments surrounding the controversy seem to pop up on a daily basis. Much of those developments have centred around Sgro's staff, in particular her chief of staff.

Even though Sgro has handed over many of the questions to the new Ethics Commissioner, the scandal, dubbed Strippergate by some papers, has taken on a life of its own and dominates Conservative queries during question period and media scrums outside the House. 

But Sgro is confident about her name being cleared, saying in an interview with the Toronto Star that appeared Friday "there's no story here."

And Sgro may not be alone.

At least two prominent Press Gallery members are questioning Conservative tactics in dealing with the scandal and are themselves wondering if there is "no story here."

Much like the Clintonistas trotted out as talking heads on cable news networks to dismiss the former U.S. president's perjury to a grand jury during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and argue it wasn't that important because it was "just about sex," those showing empathy to Sgro are taking a similar line -- "It's just about a stripper."

On the Thursday edition of Newsworld's Politics, host Don Newman kicked off his Party Lines segment with the communications directors of all the party leaders with this question to Tory Geoff Norquay: "I want to ask you a question … Is an exotic dancer who got an immigration permit to stay in Canada the most important issue facing our country? Because to watch question period, we would be led to believe by your party that it is?"

Or there is Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley who, in a column with the very subtle headline "The anatomy of a lynching," continued with Newman's train of thought on Friday when she suggested the Conservatives should instead use their question period time to "take note of a new report on global warming in the Arctic, or the government's failure on a promise to send cheap AIDS drugs to Africa or the PMO's apparent lack of readiness for the Bush visit next week."

"But that wouldn't be as sleazy - or as easy," Riley concluded. 

But it appears Press Gallery members Newman and Riley aren't the only ones who agree with their argument that the Conservatives are wasting their time going after the embattled Immigration minister and could move on to more pressing issues. 

"It is really unfortunate that we are spending so much of this important question period time not talking about the matters that are of interest to Canadians, but simply picking up whatever garbage is in the newspaper and throwing it around because we are safe in here. Let us get on to talking about the interests that matter to Canadians. Let us talk about the health care issues."

Who said that you might ask? 

That came from question period on Friday from none other than Immigration Minister Judy Sgro - who perhaps is a viewer of the Newman show and a Citizen reader. 

So are the Conservatives going to follow the advice of Newman, Riley and the minister they are targeting? 

Not according to Deputy Leader Peter MacKay.

"We'll decide which questions we give priority to in the House and we're going to ask questions on a whole range of issues pertaining to the government's handling of those files," he said Friday.

And the Conservative MP says that the controversy is more than just about "an exotic dancer who got an immigration permit to stay in Canada," as Newman explained it.

"It's not her occupation, this young woman," said MacKay. "It's not about that.

"That seems to add salacious detail to it."

So what is this scandal about? 

In one revelation that appeared in a Toronto Sun article published Wednesday a Toronto strip club co-owner said he met with Sgro's senior policy advisor at his strip club last summer to discuss getting 18 strippers into Canada. 

Sgro's staffer took the names of the dancers but later reported back to the club owner he could not help. 

Nonetheless, the Conservatives later revealed the club owner donated over $5,000 to Liberal candidates in recent years. 

If the donation wasn't a factor, Sgro explained how a club owner was able to get a cabinet chief of staff at his place of work to discuss an immigration file.

"He paid a courtesy call at the request of a friend, " she said in an interview with Canada AM Friday. 

MacKay said the issue of access to the minister and her staff is the key factor in the scandal.

"It's really about the fact that she had members of her staff there down in the riding going to a strip club doing immigration work out of her campaign office, helping somebody that was on her campaign and showing that kind of preferential treatment," he said. "It's not appropriate."

Conservative MP Monte Solberg agreed and said the scandal is about preferential treatment for certain people.

"How many other Canadians have had visits from the Immigration Minister's chief of staff when they've raised concerns about a problem with a file?" he asked PoliticsWatch.

"You can probably count them on two hands. 

"We have people in my office every day complaining about problems with immigration and I can tell you they don't get the minister's staff coming to visit them."

So does Solberg believe this is more than just about "an exotic dancer who got an immigration permit to stay in Canada?"

"Whether it's a stripper it doesn't really matter," he said. "That's really incidental. 

"The issue is do ministers have an obligation to use their offices in a responsible way that doesn't favour some people over others? And if they are doing that, should they be held to account?"

MacKay agreed that Sgro's handling of the file and her staff is a bigger factor than what industry people who received the preferential treatment were in.

"It's an issue of ministerial accountability. It's an issue of the minister taking responsibility for the work that she has done. If we just simply let this matter drop, we're basically condoning it. We're basically saying it's okay to behave in this fashion as a minister of the Crown, to do things that we feel are not appropriate and to have no accountability for that."

And the Tories are not alone.

Although the NDP has not given that much attention to the Sgro scandal in the House, NDP Leader Jack Layton said he thinks the scandal has touched a nerve because it has highlighted a government program that recruits foreigners to strip in Canada.

"What's going on here?" Layton asked. "When you get money for helping to get young women to be available to the sexual desires of young men, it's called pimping. That's the definition.

"Our concern rests with the visa program and the number of women that are finding themselves in exploitative situations here." 

But the daily hits Sgro is taking appears to have hit a nerve within the Martin spin machine which is now in full action.

Just like the sponsorship scandal the Liberals are acting in a predictable fashion.

Phase one is to get an investigation going. Sgro immediately got the Ethics Commissioner on the case.

When that fails, phase two is to get your message out in the media - remember the PM's Mad As Hell Tour? On Thursday Sgro launched an I Would Do It Again Tour and for the first time since the scandal broke took questions from reporters after the cabinet meeting and after question period. She also granted one-on-one interviews to Newman, Canada AM and the Toronto Star

But when that fails to have the desired impact phase three kicks in. Phase three is best described as the Can We All Move On? strategy.

After the PM's Mad As Hell Tour to quell public outrage with the sponsorship scandal, a string of Liberal MPs came out of a caucus meeting in February with this message.

"You have to focus on the things that matter to people in their daily lives," said Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan at the time, pointing to such issues as health care, post-secondary education, aboriginals, Canada-U.S. relations and improving the quality of life in cities. "We all want to talk about those things. Why wouldn't we want to talk about those things?" 

What did Andy Scott, then the Minister of State for Infrastructure, have to say after that February caucus meeting?

"I believe that we are beginning to hear requests from our constituents that we need to talk about other things of importance in the country." 

And Liberal MP Joe Fontanna had this to say: "We have to start talking about those issues that are important to Canadians." 

It would appear we are now at level three in the Sgro scandal.

As much as some in the media and Sgro herself would like the Conservatives to change the subject, they should be aware that the Conservatives appear to have final say with respect to what they focus their attention on and whether or not "there's no story here."

Just like the media did when it had final say and decided - much to the Liberal war room's pleasure - in the final weeks of the election campaign to focus on the issue of the Charter of Rights instead of government scandal and broken promises or other issues of importance to Canadians. 

For Sgro and her staff making phase three work is crucial because if they want a preview of phase four they only have to look at what happened to the heads of Crown corporations named in the sponsorship scandal.

: Related Links

> Question period becoming the Sgro show 

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