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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

Trudeau Swims Free, Leaving Morneau to Thrash

As his testimony pried him from opposition jaws, did the PM chum the waters with his finance minister?

Michael Harris 30 Jul 2020 |

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.

“When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”

Measured against the Ralph Waldo Emerson standard, the political opposition shot and missed, even though the prime minister of Canada was a sitting duck at a 90-minute appearance in front of the House of Commons finance committee.

The profile of the so-called WE Charity Scandal was well known before Trudeau began answering questions. The PM was accused of favouring WE because of his personal connection to the group. Members of his family, including his wife, had received payments from WE, either for services rendered or expenses. And it sure looked like such connections helped WE get the jammy $500 million contract for the short-lived volunteer grant program without a competitive bidding process.

Rather than skewering the PM with these serious accusations, the finance committee merely gave him a chance to stick pins in the flotation devices bouying this political brouhaha. And stick pins he did.

First, and most important, Trudeau testified that he never spoke to representatives of WE, and only learned of the charity’s involvement in the massive volunteer grant program on May 8. That was the date cabinet received the recommendation from the public service that WE was the only organization able to administer the volunteer grant program.

Up until then, Trudeau said that he had always thought the Canada Service Corps would administer the project. The PM created that body in 2018 as a means of involving young people in their communities. But he insisted the public service ultimately gave cabinet a “binary choice” — either WE or no volunteer grant program at all involving a third party agency.

A tad disingenuous to be sure, since the public service recommends and cabinet decides. But a far cry from the charge that the PM personally favoured WE and interfered to tilt the ultimate decision in its favour.

In fact, Trudeau testified that when he saw the recommendation of the public service to give the sole source contract to WE, he pulled the item from cabinet’s May 8 agenda and sent it back to the bureaucrats “so we could be confident we were doing the right thing.”

On May 22, the recommendation came back that WE was “the right and only” group to administer the program.

Trudeau also flatly denied being friends of the charity’s founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger. Trudeau said he never had dinner with them, never socialized with them, and didn’t consider them friends. Just people he knew.

Family matters

When it came to members of Trudeau’s family, that not-so-grand inquisitor, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, tried repeatedly to get the PM to state how much money his mother, brother and wife had been paid by WE.

Trudeau refused, claiming that he did not know the numbers. It was his weakest moment of the day. It is already on the public record that his mother Margaret, his brother Alexandre and his wife Sophie had received more than half a million dollars from WE.

In the case of his mother and brother, the PM noted that both of them were “professionals” in their own right, with a history of being paid for delivering speeches. He didn’t monitor their earnings. In his mother’s case, she had been a champion of removing the stigma from mental illness for years — and written two books about the subject.

So it was natural that she would be sought out by groups like WE to give public speeches on that and other subjects. Besides, the conflict of interest legislation defines “family” as spouse and immediate family — a point even the prickly Poilievre admitted.

But it was Trudeau’s explanation of his wife’s involvement with WE that let the air out of the charge that benefits to his family had affected the government’s choice to select WE to administer the volunteer grant program. When pressed on how much money his wife had received from WE, Trudeau instead pointed out two crucially important things.

The first was that Sophie’s work for WE was unpaid, although she had been reimbursed for expenses. And before that happened, Trudeau testified that his wife’s pro bono work for WE was approved by no less a person than Canada’s ethics commissioner. Still shocked and appalled?

As for the government handing WE a huge sole-source contract, Trudeau said that the program had to be delivered quickly, and according to his professional advisors only WE could get the job done. It is a pandemic, and there is not time to wait for perfection. Imprudent perhaps, but hardly indefensible.

Bottom line? The only way for the opposition to have magnified the WE “scandal” was to fortify the impression in committee and in front of the country that Trudeau was a shameless practitioner of nepotism and a crooked politician. They failed to add a single new fact to bolster those accusations.

Instead, Trudeau got a national television platform to explain how things actually unfolded, and he was categorical. WE got no preferential treatment from his government, and no personal support from either the PM or his staff. Unless he is lying, this scandal is a receding tide.

Lingering doubts

But that is not to say that Trudeau left the ring unscathed.

He looked especially bad on the recusal issue. He told the committee that he sent the May 8 recommendation favouring WE back to the public service because he knew that his involvement with the charity would spark close scrutiny. But if that is true, why would he not recuse himself from the cabinet decision? That was a conscious decision, not a mistake.

And why couldn’t the PM be specific when asked how many times a cabinet minister could be found in violation of conflict of interest rules before firing him?

Although the PM told the committee his government took such violations seriously, it all sounded a little hollow. Trudeau himself has been guilty of such conflicts on two occasions, and may add a third when Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is finished investigating him in the WE affair later this autumn.

But the sleeper behind today’s events at the finance committee is the shadow creeping over the future of cabinet heavyweight Bill Morneau, who also failed to recuse himself from the WE decision, even though he had close personal ties to the charity.

Two of his daughters worked for WE. The finance minister took an expensive trip on WE’s dime back in 2017 — a clear violation of the rules, and one that he attempted to wash away by repaying the charity this week. Ominously for Morneau, Trudeau said he was unaware that his finance minister had taken that trip.

If anyone ends up drowning, it will be the guy who runs the country’s finances, but doesn’t apparently notice when someone gives him a $41,000 freebie.  [Tyee]

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