Tell-all scandal book set to embarrass politician

OTTAWA Wed Oct 1, 2008 12:46pm EDT

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, already on the defensive amid charges of plagiarism, faced the prospect of fresh embarrassment Wednesday over a new book that paints an unflattering portrait of his former foreign minister Maxime Bernier.

In the book, an ex-girlfriend of Bernier says he was careless with secret documents, expressed no concerns over the possible secession of French-speaking Quebec and was opposed to sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan.

What is particularly awkward for Harper is that Bernier had been a star candidate from Quebec, where the Conservatives are hoping to make big gains in the Oct 14 election.

The book is being released in Quebec next Monday amid a big publicity campaign that is likely to draw voter attention.

Bernier was forced to resign in May after admitting he had left secret briefing documents in the apartment of girlfriend, Julie Couillard, who had once had ties to organized crime. The pair have since split up.

Bernier was supposed to have returned the documents to the foreign ministry but Couillard writes that he simply asked her to throw them away.

"I'd rather you waited until garbage collection day to do so. They are secret documents, after all," she quotes him as saying. Couillard later returned the documents to the foreign ministry in an act that prompted Bernier to resign.

Extracts from the book were published by the French-language La Presse newspaper Wednesday.

Bernier issued a statement to La Presse dismissing the allegations in the book as "completely ridiculous." No one in Harper's office was available for comment.

The extracts came the same day that Harper and the leaders of Canada's four other parties are due to hold a two-hour debate in French at 8 p.m. (0000 GMT Thursday).

When Bernier resigned, opposition legislators said the scandal showed what a poor choice of minister he had been. After the Conservatives won the January 2006 election Bernier was made industry minister and moved over to the foreign affairs portfolio in August 2007.

Harper says Quebec's well-established separatist movement is a big threat and can only be stopped by the Conservatives.

Bernier, according to Couillard, had a more relaxed attitude, telling her that Quebec independence was inevitable.

"That doesn't scare me at all. It's clear we're heading in that direction. I don't have any problems with that. I'm ready. I'm expecting it," she quotes him as saying. Polls show that around 45 percent of Quebecers back the idea of independence.

Couillard also describes Bernier as vain and intellectually lazy and says he continually complained about Harper, who this week has been dealing with other challenges.

A Conservative campaign worker resigned Tuesday after admitting he plagiarized large chunks of a speech backing the U.S. war on Iraq that Harper delivered in 2003 while leader of the opposition.

The speech had originally been delivered by then Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Scott Anderson)

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