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The Ethics Commissioner’s second report on conflict of interest violations by the prime minister in the SNC-Lavalin scandal was titled: “Trudeau II,” so it is fair to assume that his investigation into alleged improprieties over the awarding of a $900 million contract to the WE charity will be labelled “Trudeau III.”
One has to admire the Liberal leader’s resolve in refusing to be bound by the conventions – or more accurately, the laws – that have constrained his predecessors. There is every prospect the prime minister is on the brink of an inglorious hat-trick. Not only has he already contravened sections 5, 9, 11, 12 and 21 of the Conflict of Interest Act, he may yet add sections 6 (1) and 7 to his rap sheet. The sheer variety of misconduct is impressive, yet Trudeau’s behaviour is excused by his apologists because they see his motives as pure.
But why not indulge this sense of imperial prerogative? It’s clear there were no electoral consequences after being found guilty of breaching the Conflict Act when visiting the Aga Khan’s private island or from trying to improperly influence the decision of the Attorney-General in the SNC case.
This sense of licence was on display in the House of Commons on Wednesday, as Trudeau sparred with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in a rare summer question period.
Scheer asked whether Trudeau would waive all privileges and confidences, so that the Ethics Commission could conduct a full and proper investigation.
Trudeau replied that he always co-operates with officers of Parliament, including the Ethics Commissioner. This prompted the Conservative leader to remind the prime minister that during Trudeau II, he refused to waive privileges and confidences. “That is his modus operandi when it comes to a scandal investigation. He does everything he can to prevent the full truth from coming out,” he said.
Trudeau feigned outrage, saying that “in the last situation”, his government waived Cabinet confidence and solicitor-client privilege. “It was an unprecedented step, because we deeply believe in transparency and accountability,” he said, against a background of uncharitable guffaws from the opposition.
One wonders what Mario Dion, the Ethics Commissioner, thinks of that statement. His judgment in the SNC case offers some clues.
In February 2019, the Liberal government authorized the former Attorney-General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, “and any person who directly participated in discussions with her” in relation to SNC, to divulge to the House justice committee matters that would otherwise have been kept secret under the Cabinet confidence provision.
Consequently, nine witnesses approached Dion’s office saying they had information relevant to his inquiry but which they could not discuss because it might breach Cabinet confidentiality.
Dion instructed his office’s legal counsel to engage with the Privy Council Office about requesting waivers for the nine witnesses but found himself blocked.
Dion raised the matter with Trudeau directly when he interviewed him in May and the prime minister said he would consult with PCO to see if the waiver granting Wilson-Raybould licence to speak could be amended.
Dion contacted the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart, and argued the waiver should be extended, since the Ethics Commissioner was already prohibited from publicly revealing Cabinet confidences under the Parliament of Canada Act.
Trudeau, of course, argued that the decision to limit disclosure was made by the same impartial public service that he says gifted the $900 million contract to WE
Yet by June of last year, Shugart had declined requests for access – a decision Trudeau’s counsel said was the Clerk’s alone.
Dion said the ruling meant he was “unable to fully discharge the investigative duties conferred on me by the (Conflict of Interest) Act.”
“Decisions that affect my jurisdiction under the Act, by setting parameters on my ability to receive evidence, should be made transparently and democratically by Parliament, not by the very same public office holders who are subject to the regime I administer,” he said.
Trudeau, of course, argued that the decision to limit disclosure was made by the same impartial public service that he says gifted the $900 million contract to WE.
It’s true that any Clerk worth his or her salt would advise against a measure that has the potential to weaken frank debate and collective responsibility in Cabinet. The Clerk is the custodian of Cabinet secrets – and of the tradition to keep them just that, which goes back hundreds of years in the Westminster system.
But it’s equally true that Trudeau could have over-ruled Shugart, just as he could have quashed the decision to award a lucrative contract to an organization to which he is joined at the hip in the public’s mind (WE’s website describes his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, as “more than an ambassador” of its Well-being program, “she is its mentor, booster and champion”.)
In addition, media reports on Thursday said that WE paid the prime minister’s mother, Margaret, and brother, Alexandre, around $300,000 for speeches over the past four years.
Dion has experience with Trudeau trying to pass the buck. In Trudeau II, the prime minister claimed he could not be “vicariously liable” for the actions of his staff. The Ethics Commissioner dismissed such hogwash, pointing out that everyone on the government side acted “under the direction and authority of the prime minister.”
Dion is unlikely to swallow the line that this is a prime minister who “deeply believes in transparency and accountability.”
Trudeau must now defend himself against accusations that he engaged in preferential treatment; that he failed to recuse himself, and, that he participated in a decision when he should have known that he could be in a conflict of interest.
Given his intimacy with the Act, after repeated engagements with the Ethics Commissioner, the prime minister should indeed have known the perils associated with waving through a near $1 billion contract to his friends.
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