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Analysis
  |  
Politics
  |  
Federal Politics

Can Trudeau Change the Channel?

He’s betting a fresh agenda post-prorogue will save his government. Why he’s likely right.

Michael Harris 21 Aug 2020 | TheTyee.ca

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.

In politics, the end sometimes comes with blessed suddenness.

It beats the slow death that the opposition normally inflicts on rival public figures under investigation by the ethics commissioner, the ethics and finance committees or the RCMP.

Bill Morneau was dead man walking from the moment he testified in front of a parliamentary committee last month that he had just cut a cheque to WE Charity for $41,366. WE is the group that was awarded a sole-source contract to administer the $900-million Canada Student Service Grant program, a juicy plum that came with a management fee of up to $43.5 million.

Never mind the not-for-attribution stories about policy disagreements between Morneau and the prime minister; or leaks from the PMO about bad blood between the two men; or Morneau’s claim that he wasn’t going to run again anyway; or Trudeau’s bromance with Mark Carney. Artful backfilling at best, or the usual Ottawa gossip — one part fact, nine parts grasping at straws.

The WE scandal is what took the finance minister down. Morneau simply did something that no senior cabinet minister, let alone the dude in charge of the cashbox, can survive doing. He surprised the country, and his prime minister, with very unpleasant news at exactly the wrong time. The very moment when the opposition was pumping the bellows to fan the embers of an embarrassing face-plant on the Canada Student Service Grant program into a five-alarm scandal.

In 2017, WE paid for trips for the Morneau family to Ecuador and Kenya. It took Morneau three years to pay them back, a debt he settled, coincidentally, the day before he testified in front of the Finance Committee. The PM says he didn’t know about the trip. With that, Morneau wrote his own epitaph.

According to an avalanche of documents recently released by the Trudeau government, Morneau’s office was nudging bureaucrats towards the decision to choose WE to administer the government’s CSSG program. Like this one, from Deputy Finance Minister Michelle Kovacevic, to the assistant deputy minister of Employment and Social Development Canada, Rachel Wernick:

“WE is connecting with my mino (they are besties). I don’t want my guys to get ahead of you and have told them that they should tell WE that you are Canada’s point of contact,” she wrote on May 7. It would be two more weeks before the deal was sealed.

(Ottawa-speak for minister’s office is “mino.”)

There were further problems for the former finance minister. One of Morneau’s daughters worked for WE, though not in a capacity related to the volunteer grant contract.

And when it came time to hand the massive program to the brothers Kielburger last May 22, Morneau still owed the charity for those trips. Nevertheless, he sat around the cabinet table and was part of the decision-making process.

True, he did apologize for not recusing himself, but it was too little too late. Expect him to be splatted like a bug on the windshield by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion when he releases his report.

Pulling the emergency brake

Morneau’s demise triggered a chain of events that prompted the prime minister to take the greatest chance of his political career — the decision to prorogue Parliament with the wolf pack closing in on his alleged ethical shortcomings once again.

That move brought Parliament’s work to a grinding halt, including investigations by parliamentary committees delving into the WE charity affair. Apart from throwing a histrionic hissy fit at press conferences, as the Conservatives’ Pierre Poilievre did this week, MPs won’t get a chance to call new witnesses before their committees until after a new speech from the throne.

So Trudeau gets some breathing room just when things were getting hot for him in the kitchen, including the possibility that family members might be hauled up in front of the finance committee. And that isn’t the only benefit that accrues to the Liberals from pulling the parliamentary plug.

The PM bought himself time to craft a new legislative agenda laying out how he plans to restart the economy. Judging from the massive amounts of money already spent on supporting millions of Canadians through the pandemic, it will be a dramatic agenda.

The government is hoping that hitting the reset button will make such a splash that only parliamentary nitpickers will continue to gripe about a dubious program that managed to last all of one week, and has already claimed the finance minister.

But the downside to cancelling parliamentary business is the broad speculation that only someone with something to hide opts to prorogue.

Stephen Harper resorted to prorogation four times during his tenure as prime minister, including a period lasting from Dec. 31, 2009 until March 2, 2010. By doing so, he not only avoided a non-confidence vote by a political coalition of convenience, but also shut down a parliamentary investigation into the Afghan detainee file. The downside? His reputation as a democracy killer was set in cement.

So what about Trudeau? What price will he pay for delaying Parliament’s work until Sept. 23? Not much.

For one thing, Parliament hasn’t been normal since COVID-19 struck. Secondly, the delay here is very short-lived, just long enough for the Liberals to come up with a major distraction from scandal. You can bet the speech from the throne will be jammy — and very difficult to vote against. The CERB program is already extended and expanded with a fresh commitment of $37 billion.

Betting against an election

And then there is the biggest part of his gamble. The PM is betting that no political party, with the exception of the Bloc Québécois, will be anxious to trigger an election. He is probably right.

The Conservatives need time to establish the fact that there is a new marshal in town. Going into an election with a leader just over a month on the job would be dicey.

Where would the policy come from? Where would the money come from? Where would the candidates come from? And how would Canadians feel about an election foisted on them during a pandemic? (We will soon see, as New Brunswick heads to the polls in September after its minority government couldn’t work a deal with the opposition.)

As for the NDP, the financial cupboard is bare. Besides, Jagmeet Singh has a chance to use the Trudeau government’s vulnerability to negotiate progressive policies as the price of his support. Things like child care, where he has already gotten $2 billion out of the government, and pharmacare.

As for the Greens, the party is in the middle of a leadership battle and might not even have a new leader if the government were to fall in September.

Like Morneau, Trudeau is under investigation by the ethics commissioner. Soon, the RCMP will decide on whether they will open an investigation into how the WE contract was issued.

Both men failed to recuse themselves from the cabinet decision that gave the student grant program to WE without a competitive bidding process, despite personal connections to the charity. And the vast amount of taxpayer money involved, up to $900 million.

But the differences in the two cases are more important than the similarities.

Morneau took a sponsored trip and then forgot about it, leaving him in an untenable position relative to the Conflict of Interest Act. Trudeau’s dilemma does not involve getting a freebie or a fee from the Kielburgers. In fact, the newly released documents back up his central claim that the public service, not his government, picked WE for the student grant program.

The PM’s problem is that family members made more than $250,000 in speaking fees from WE, namely his mother and brother. But the relevant act defines family as immediate family, which means his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and kids.

And although Grégoire Trudeau has done work for WE, almost all of it unpaid, she had her participation cleared by the ethics commissioner in advance. In other words, unless there is evidence to the contrary, Trudeau is technically within the conflict rules when it comes to financial benefits.

Should he have recused himself? Of course. Was his failure to do so corrupt? Only if you use the spandex definition of corruption favoured by people like Pierre Poilievre. Once again, unless the PM has lied, and until there is hard evidence to prove otherwise, what we have here is yet another case of bad judgment on Trudeau’s part.

The only question left unanswered is whether voters will see it that way. In the court of public opinion, it usually comes down to whether or not something passes the smell test.

For now, there is a distinct odour coming from this kettle of fish.  [Tyee]

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