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Heritage Minister defends hiring Tory candidate who lost to Cotler

Heritage Minister James Moore speaks during a Question Period on Nov. 17, 2011.

BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters

Breaking their initial silence, the Conservatives have spoken up in defence of a government employee who's been described as a "shadow MP" by Liberal Irwin Cotler.

Mr. Cotler has expressed concern that Saulie Zajdel – the Tory candidate he beat in last May's election – has been working on the taxpayer's dime to undermine him in his Montreal riding.

Well before the recent controversy over robo-calls, news emerged from Mr. Cotler's riding of mysterious phone calls to constituents suggesting he was on the verge of retiring. It was in the wake of those phone calls that Mr. Cotler complained about his rival performing MP-like duties in the riding.

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Until Friday, the Conservatives had refused to discuss Mr. Zajdel's role as "regional adviser" inside Heritage Minister James Moore's Montreal office.

But Mr. Moore bristled at the suggestion that his employee was behaving like a second member of Parliament.

"No, not at all," the minister told reporters when asked about Mr. Zajdel's role during a visit to Montreal. "It's not political at all. There's no political involvement, it's entirely a ministerial staff function."

Mr. Moore, who hired Mr. Zajdel five months after the election, said the former Montreal municipal politician works as a full-time liaison between his office and the city's cultural communities.

"People know him, he does a phenomenal job," Mr. Moore said, crediting Mr. Zajdel for helping him prepare for his visit to Montreal and for writing a speech.

The minister said Mr. Zajdel will help organize the federal government's participation in Montreal festivities, including the city's upcoming 375th birthday celebration.

"There's all kinds of events coming up here and to have somebody on the ground in Canada's second-largest city, who knows the city well as a former city councillor, I think it's an entirely responsible and healthy thing," he said.

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But Mr. Zajdel's community-outreach work has also taken him to Mr. Cotler's riding of Mount Royal – an urban Montreal seat highly coveted by the Conservatives.

Mr. Cotler has said he's been told Mr. Zajdel offered to help local municipal politicians secure federal grants and services, stirring concerns from the former justice minister that he's acting acting as a "shadow MP" on the public purse.

Mr. Zajdel lost to Mr. Cotler in the May election by fewer than 2,500 votes and is expected to take another run for Mount Royal. If he wins, the Conservatives will have the beachhead in Montreal that they have been lacking for two decades.

In November, Mr. Zajdel gave a 15-minute presentation to mayors in the riding about Canadian Heritage programs, including funds for arts, cultural spaces and museums.

Westmount Mayor Peter Trent, who attended the presentation, said Mr. Zajdel took the "strange" step of proposing the meeting. But Mr. Trent said Mr. Zajdel didn't raise partisan politics or act inappropriately.

One of Canada's most prominent constitutional experts said there's a fine line that the Conservatives must be careful to avoid crossing in this case.

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Ned Franks said it's acceptable for an MP's staffer to present programs offered by the federal government – but he warned that it must always remain non-partisan.

For instance, Mr. Zajdel should eschew talk of political parties, he said.

"The place where it becomes wrong is if they say, 'We're Liberal or we're Conservative and this is what the Conservatives do for you.' It would have to be, 'It's the government that does this,'" Prof. Franks said Friday.

Prof. Franks said the Conservatives have blurred these lines in the past and cited an example: the party's insistence that funding announcements be attributed to the "Harper Government."

"I haven't seen the Conservative party, to put it politely, making rigorous distinction between that which is party and that which is government," he said.

"I think they tend to equate the two more than I would like to see."

Mr. Moore made the remarks in Montreal after an announcement that the "Harper Government" would continue its support of the National Theatre School of Canada. The government extended the school's annual $4.6-million operating grant for two more years.

The Heritage Minister insisted that political parties have a history of hiring defeated candidates as government employees.

"It's interesting Irwin Cotler makes that accusation; the Liberals used to hire people who were unsuccessful candidates themselves," he said.

"They did it as well, and part of the reason why, is very often the people who run for office are some of the people who are the best connected within the city."

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