Liberals shut down the Ethics Commissioner

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Canada’s federal ethics committee needs a new name.  Certainly its conduct this week doesn’t deserve to be within a mile of the word “ethics.”

After a two-hour meeting Wednesday, the Liberal majority on the House of Commons committee overseeing federal ethics issues blocked an effort to hear testimony from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion.

If this sounds familiar, no I’m not recycling an old column.  Though the Liberals are certainly recycling tricks they’ve been employing with record frequency this year.

Such an appearance should have been routine.  Dion is, after all, an officer of parliament.  His office even said he’d be available to testify on short notice, with no logistical or scheduling hurdles to overcome.  He was ready and willing – he just needed to be invited.

When someone at Dion’s level tables a report like the Trudeau II bombshell last week, it’s not only permissible, but entirely expected for them to field questions from parliamentarians about its content and the process behind it.

This document wasn’t about Tajikistani sorghum imports, or briefing memo from the deputy assistant undersecretary for assistants, but rather an impeachment of unethical and illegal conduct from the Prime Minister of Canada regarding his interactions with Jody Wilson-Raybould over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.  Something serious enough that you’d think the Liberals might be able to muster a few questions.

Though with the election so close, perhaps they’re a bit nervous about what the answers might be.

The committee’s New Democratic vice-chair Charlie Angus had the right idea with his question, posed in a media scrum after the meeting.

“What were the Liberals so frightened of that they shut down the ethics commissioner?”

For a government that repeats the phrase “evidence-based decision making” until the tape breaks, it’s an odd choice to deny the federal ethics commissioner the opportunity to table evidence before lawmakers.

If you want informed politicians – and informed Canadians – more information is better.  Less is only more convenient when you wish to avoid more sunlight on a scandal.

Let’s just recap all the ways the Liberals have tried to block additional transparency throughout the SNC-Lavalin affair:

  • The Liberal majority on the justice committee blocked Jody Wilson-Raybould from testifying a second time, despite her saying she had more information to share.
  • Trudeau declined to expand his waiver of solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality, despite Wilson-Raybould saying she there was relevant information outside the window for which he had waived it.
  • Trudeau and the Privy Council office declined to waive cabinet confidence for nine witnesses, whose identities are not known, who told Dion they had information relevant to his investigation but couldn’t share it without a waiver.

And, of course, there’s this latest ethics committee farce.

The Conservative and New Democratic Party members of parliament on the committee who pushed for Dion to testify obviously have their own partisan interests – no one is saying otherwise – though that doesn’t mean they aren’t on the right side of this issue nonetheless.

Their arguments clearly struck a chord, as Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith broke ranks with his own party to vote for Dion to testify.

His rationale was different than that of the opposition: Erskine-Smith said he wanted to challenge Dion’s interpretation of the law in a couple of areas of his report.  A rigorous challenge of the commissioner is an entirely justified use of the committee process.

Sadly, his vote wasn’t enough to swing the balance of power away from those whose goal was simply to protect Trudeau.

There’s a downside for the Liberals in all this, however.  By not taking the opportunity to question Dion and his report, the Liberals are forced to accept it at face value.  How can they dispute its contents when they rejected an opportunity to put a layer of scrutiny on them through the parliamentary process?

It’s lamentable that committees – which were once home to much of the cooperative and cross-partisan work parliament does – have become cesspools of partisan obstructionism.

I suppose there’s something to be said for a majority government not being of any purpose if you don’t use it to abuse the process and bully around committee members.  The Liberals may not be ethical, but they’re certainly efficient.

Dion’s report came out last week, and the government has already seen and heard enough to close the book on this chapter in Trudeau’s premiership.

There was a willing witness.  There were eager MPs.  But the Liberal party stood in the way of Dion and the many questions Canadians still have for him.

Photo Credit: CBC News

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

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.

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