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Federal Politics

Catch and Release: Why Trudeau Gets away with So Much Stuff

Working in the PM’s favour is the low importance of ethics in today’s public life.

Michael Harris 14 Jul

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

So the prime minister is apologizing yet again for making another ethical “mistake.”

Justin Trudeau has apparently realized the perils of being seen as a political sugar daddy to a charity with clear and longstanding connections to his family — and that is being charitable.

As far as his reputation goes, the PM’s latest alleged ethics transgression is not much better than being seen as an elitist freeloader accepting a trip to a billionaire’s island, or a political meddler in the world of justice in the matter of SNC-Lavalin.

Sometime this autumn, ethics commissioner Mario Dion will rule on the WE charity affair. If Dion finds that the prime minister has violated the ethics code, it will be his third strike. In baseball, that would mean the PM would be out.

But this is politics, where stealing signs, videotaping the practices of opponents, and generally resorting to anything that might yield a competitive advantage is fair ball. It remains to be seen if Trudeau the Younger will pay a price for the WE affair, a deal that was so bad it was withdrawn barely a week after it was brazenly announced.

Brazenly, yes. It is hard to see how giving administrative responsibility for $900 million of public money to a non-profit charity that has paid your family members, including your mother and brother, more than a quarter of $1 million in speaking fees is OK.

It is hard to believe that paying WE a fee of nearly $20 million to run the Canada Student Service Grant is OK — especially with a huge professional public service already at the PM’s disposal. Never mind that this windfall was offered with no competitive bidding process for the work.

And it is hard to believe that Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, also had a relative working for the same charity. Yet like Trudeau, Morneau did not recuse himself from cabinet when the decision was made to shower WE with cash.

Nor did Trudeau or Morneau take this extraordinary contract award to the ethics commissioner beforehand to see if it was permissible. This fish stinks from the head.

Why he’ll wriggle free

But here is the practical question: can Trudeau ultimately survive? The answer is probably yes, and here’s why.

For starters, the official Opposition has already grossly overplayed its hand. Before commissioner Dion has conducted his first investigative interview, the Conservatives called for a “criminal investigation.”

The CPC would like nothing better than to be able to say that the Mounties have opened a file on the PM. Stephen Harper used that same tactic himself, as his treatment of former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis, showed. This is gross politicization of the now withdrawn deal before the facts are in.

And the request is being made by a party whose fundraising arm, the Conservative Fund, pled guilty in 2011 to violations under the Canada Elections Act in the 2006 election; a party whose leader as PM was found to be in contempt of Parliament; and a party who had a senior member, and the PM’s former parliamentary secretary, Dean del Mastro, sent to the slammer for election expense cheating.

The present leader of the Conservatives, Andrew Scheer, is himself accused by party members of using his own office budget for the education of his children. Even in the current Conservative leadership race, one frontrunner has called his opponent a thief, and the other has accused his rival of being a liar. And yes, one of them, Erin O’Toole, asked the RCMP to investigate Peter MacKay. All this from a party that now wants Canadians to believe that it is obsessed with ethics, not the grimiest of politics.

And then there is the COVID-19 factor that benefits the PM. Until the pandemic hit, Trudeau’s political stock was dropping. True, he was the PM, but he had lost his majority — and some of his mojo, in the 2019 election.

But starting last April, his approval rating began to soar. The majority of Canadians approved of his handling of the pandemic. His daily televised briefings, and his government’s immense economic aid package, were hits at the box-office.

Trudeau not only flattened the curve of COVID-19, he also flattened the political opposition. And that raises an important question: what will ultimately resonate with Canadians — another ethics scandal involving the PM, or his record during what is arguably the greatest peacetime crisis in the country’s history? I suspect it will be the latter.

But the greatest thing working in the PM’s favour is the relatively low importance of ethics in today’s public life. Lying has become so routine since Cadet Bone Spur became president of the United States, it is the new normal. Eyes glaze over at the mention of that muddiest of phrases, conflict of interest. Everyone understands getting a cheque.

Nothing shocks anymore

Ethical failures, which would once have been decisive factors in a politician’s career, are now secondary to the usual obsessions — the state of the economy, health care, pipelines, et cetera.

The fact that Trudeau was found to have improperly meddled in a criminal case, a scandal that cost two of his cabinet ministers their jobs for standing up to him when he was the one acting inappropriately, makes the point. Ultimately, voters weren’t shocked and appalled — just briefly and mildly pissed off.

The low priority of all things ethical in our public life is best showcased in the official punishment for a negative finding by the ethics commissioner. Sweet bugger all. An average fine of $250 under commissioner Dion, compared to $100 under his predecessor Mary Dawson. Some might call that progress. I don’t.

When Trudeau didn’t declare a gift of expensive sunglasses from the premier of PEI, Dion fined him $100. Jaywalking in most cities carries a bigger fine.

And then there is the “public shaming,” which supposedly comes with being found in conflict of interest in a public report by the commissioner. My response? How can you shame the shameless?

If Canada really wanted ethical politicians

Ending the PM’s incessant ethical faceplants and conflicts of interest would be a relatively simple matter.

Sole-source contracts, like the one bestowed on WE, have no place in a democracy, except under the direst of circumstances. So either do away with them, or compel any government that wants to spend tax dollars without a competitive tendering process to publicly demonstrate that one and only one company or group can provide a service.

Most important of all, put some teeth in the paper tiger of the current conflict of interest rules and ethical guidelines. Instead of a chump-change fine, take a year or two of an offending politician’s salary. If the offence is egregious, like gross nepotism at the public’s expense, suspend the officeholder for six months.

As long as a good lashing with a wet noodle is the price politicians pay for behaving unethically, those $250 fines — and the apologies, will just keep coming.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Federal Politics

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