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Harper picks ex-separatist to lead investigation of Liberal-era polling

[PoliticsWatch updated 4:50 p.m. April 11, 2007]

Senator Michael Fortier and former PQ cabinet minister Daniel Paillé.

OTTAWA  — The Conservative government's plans to launch a review of public opinion research of past governments got off to a rocky start on Wednesday.      
 
Public Works Minister Michael Fortier announced at a press conference on Parliament Hill that the government had appointed a former cabinet minister from Quebec's separatist Parti Quebecois, Daniel Paillé, to head an investigation that will focus mainly on the polling practices of the previous Liberal government.  

But the press conference, which got off to a rocky start because of logistical problems, was dominated by questions to Fortier about whether the Conservatives were merely conducting a witch hunt of the former Liberal government and questions to Paillé about whether he was still a separatist. 
  
Paillé will take six months to review documents related to public opinion research practices from the period of 1990 to 2003. The Liberals were in government for 10 of those 13 years.  

He will also take another look at issues related to Chapter 5 of the Auditor General's 2003 report. That particular chapter has been closely examined in Ottawa for three years now because it included the findings that led to the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal and mentioned some concerns about polling. This included the finance department receiving five reports verbally from Earnscliffe, the Ottawa firm which was home to many of former prime minister Paul Martin's closest advisers. 

In 2005, David Herle, Martin's election co-chair who once worked at Earnscliffe, and Terrie O'Leary, who worked for Martin at finance, appeared before the public accounts committee where they were grilled for two hours about polling and other work Earnscliffe did for finance. 

On Wednesday, the Liberals accused the Tories of using taxpayer money to conduct a political "witch hunt."

"The Auditor General conducted an identical examination on this three years ago and found the government was managing public opinion research in a transparent manner and with adequate controls," said Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez.

"Not only is this government doubting the word of Canada's Auditor General, but it has appointed a separatist to do the job." 

But Fortier told reporters the Conservatives are only fulfilling an election promise and he said the review will not focus primarily on the Earnscliffe contracts. 

Fortier's press conference was mired by logistical problems. 

When the Conservatives first announced the press conference it was originally to be held at the National Press Theatre. The Conservatives and Prime Minister Stephen Harper usually avoid using the theatre to hold press conferences as the Parliamentary Press Gallery controls who asks questions there. 

Late on Tuesday, reporters received an email announcing the location had been changed to a small room on Parliament Hill, perhaps to accommodate a large blue billboard that was used as the backdrop.

When reporters arrived for the press conference on Wednesday the audio set up was not working and reporters had to place their microphones and recording devices on the podium and floor where Fortier was to speak. 

One prominent Ottawa bureau chief approached two of Fortier's staff members and asked who was responsible for the lousy set up for the event. 

When other reporters complained to Fortier's staff about the absence of audio, they blamed House of Commons technicians for the problems and said, "It's not our fault."

Fortier began his press conference by apologizing to reporters for the problems, but later when asked who in Ottawa should be "nervous" about the investigation, the minister joked, "Who's nervous? Maybe the House of Commons technicians."

Meanwhile, Paillé was asked over and over to answer whether or not he was still a separatist. 

He refused to answer, saying it was like asking someone about their religion. 

Fortier defended his pick, saying he had the "perfect professional profile" for the job. 

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