Anyone hoping for a bombshell when Justin Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, sat down before the House of Commons finance committee was sorely disappointed.
Trudeau’s testimony Thursday afternoon was one filled with few details at all, and what little information did come across didn’t really cut to the heart of the WE scandal.
Trudeau is facing yet another ethics probe for his decision to award administration of a $912 million cash-for-volunteering scheme to WE, a family of organizations that has close ties to Trudeau and much of his inner circle, including his mother, brother, chief of staff, and at least two of his cabinet ministers.
Despite admitting he should have recused himself from the cabinet table, he has been unrepentant about the program itself.
The finance committee has launched a probe. While this process has its purpose, its value shouldn’t be overstated. The committee can unearth details and produce a report, but it has no real punitive power.
That said, even the person who does have such power, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, is limited to levying a $500 fine if he finds Trudeau broke the conflict of interest laws for a third time. This isn’t even a tap on the wrist let alone a slap on it.
So in the absence of prosecutorial power, the only real win for opposition parties, who together control the majority of votes on the committee given the Liberals’ minority government, would be to score a political victory or embarrass Trudeau.
I wouldn’t say there was a smoking gun, but rather a generally unpleasant picture of how decisions are made in Trudeau’s government.
I’m not sure it was as explosive as Trudeau’s critics would have liked, but it was noteworthy how Trudeau’s defense is basically that he lets the public service do what it wants and has little to do with significant government policies.
Trudeau said he only learned of the bureaucracy’s plan to outsource the grant program moments before a May 8 cabinet meeting at which the plan was to be approved.
He claims to have “pushed back” against it and demanded “due diligence,” which seems to have been satisfied when the public service told him the same thing two weeks later.
“They said that if we wanted this program to happen, it could only be with WE Charity. The choice was not between providers, it was between going ahead with WE Charity to deliver the program, or not going ahead with the program at all,” Trudeau said Thursday.
I would have liked the latter myself.
There wasn’t much push back on the push back claim at the committee meeting. Exactly what issues did he raise, and to whom? Were his issues about the cost or about his relationship with WE?
Even with the supposed “push back” and Trudeau’s knowledge – which he admitted during his testimony – that his family had deep ties to WE, Trudeau didn’t seem to take stock of the myriad ways in which this program could be seen as a conflict of interest.
Trudeau said there was no connection between the work his family did with WE and the student grant program. Oh, great. Glad we sorted that out then.
Trudeau may have been completely disengaged from the policy process, but that doesn’t negate the fact that WE had been peddling influence with members of his family, team and cabinet. It’s not difficult to imagine that people in the public service were aware that WE was Trudeau-approved when they set out to recommend the sole-source deal.
But there is something in all of this that hardly exonerates Trudeau: he lets the public service run rogue and just swoops in in the eleventh hour to sign the cheque.
This adds a layer of incompetence to the corruption in that Trudeau isn’t actually steering the policy that he’s seeking.
But for a project of this size, it simply isn’t believable that the public service wouldn’t have had assurances from someone in the Prime Minister’s Office that things were going ahead, especially since WE started doing work before the plan went to cabinet for approval. This would be a big risk were there not certainties that the contract would be signed.
Photo Credit: Gary Clement, National Post
Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.