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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s explanation for his latest ethics debacle sounds reasonable enough: he knew there would be optics problems with selecting a charity that was so close to his family to run a nearly $1-billion program, so he asked for some extra due diligence. Having been reassured that WE was the only choice, he pushed boldly forward. Because needy students were depending on him.
The problem is — and this is me talking, not the prime minister — neither he nor his chief of staff had any idea they were barrelling straight towards disaster. No clue the WE charity empire had started to resemble one of those creatures from the Alien movies, with so many ugly bits you want to hide under a bed. No inkling that Finance Minister Bill Morneau had big conflict of interest issues he’d neglected to mention. No indication that whoever was supposed to take the second look Trudeau requested had either left for vacation, or did one of those Google searches where you glance at the first three entries, cry “good enough” and move on.
Fine. We’re well into a pandemic and every government has had trouble coping. Need we mention the chaos to our south? But the impression left by Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, is of a tired, overwhelmed government that’s too exhausted to get its own socks on right. Should they really be rolling out $350 billion in programs when they can’t even give money to volunteers without screwing things up?
Start with the WE operation. Trudeau said he wasn’t aware that the state of WE’s finances were such that Michelle Douglas, chair of the charity’s board, had resigned after a confrontation with the Kielburger brothers over access to financial data. He didn’t know WE was in breach of bank covenants, that most of the rest of the board had departed with Douglas or that WE had laid off hundreds of staff.
He also wasn’t aware that Morneau had accepted trips to Kenya and Ecuador at WE’s expense, probably because Morneau himself didn’t notice he hadn’t been billed for a big portion of the $93,000 tab until shortly before he was due to testify before the House of Commons finance committee.
It’s probably safe to guess that Trudeau also had no idea how the bill for a few flights and hotel accommodations could possibly come to $93,000 unless some pretty luxurious accommodating was going on. Telford said all she knew of the Morneau-Kielburger connection was that one of Morneau’s daughters had spoken at WE events and had a book with a blurb from a Kielburger on the back cover.
Trudeau said neither he nor Telford even realized WE had been singled out as the only possible prospect to run the program until just before cabinet was set to meet to discuss the project, weeks after work had begun, and after WE had, by all indications, been given the go-ahead. The public service is supposed to check these things out thoroughly before they get to the prime minister, but somehow missed all the dangerous bits. Even after Trudeau demanded some extra legwork, the response was the same: “If we wanted this program to happen, it had to be WE charity.”
If you’ve been keeping up on Trudeau’s numerous previous apologies for his slip-ups, you’ll know that in his view they are rarely, if ever, his fault. And once again he considers himself entirely in the clear. While insisting he has the deepest respect for Ottawa’s public servants, he pretty blatantly left them twisting in the wind.
Every prime minister operates in a bubble to a considerable extent. But Trudeau’s seems more like an impermeable vacuum. A key element of the SNC-Lavalin scandal was Trudeau’s apparent ignorance of the fact that his justice minister and attorney general was getting mightily frustrated at the treatment she was receiving, and that something needed to be done or there was going to be trouble ahead. But no one told him.
Everyone was so wary of intruding on the prime minister’s space that Gerald Butts, his principal secretary, ended up taking the fall when Trudeau finally glommed onto the truth. The resulting scandal left him badly wounded and may have cost him a majority in last year’s election, yet now we have him once again claiming to have been left sadly uninformed, despite a personal office and a vast bureaucratic apparatus that exists largely to ensure the prime minister gets full and timely information.
Even Green Leader Elizabeth May can’t sort this out. “Can you explain how it’s possible,” she asked Telford, “that no one would have told the prime minister, burst his bubble, tell him his favourite operation, Canada Service Corp., was not going to be able to do it? Why did no one tell him before May 8 that Canada Service Corp. was out of it and WE charity was delivering the program?”
Telford replied that, you know, they were busy . It was a big crisis. There was loads of paperwork. She mentioned something about annex 4, page 5 of a massive document that landed in the midst of deliberations, which did indeed make some passing reference to WE, but no one picked up on it, at least not enough to catch Trudeau’s attention.
Ignorance, they say, is bliss. That being the case, Justin Trudeau’s days must be one blissful moment after another. The giant costly Ottawa complex that is constantly being justified as essential to the operation of sound government appears to have somehow concluded that its first responsibility is to protect and defend the prime minister, ensuring he has ready excuses when things go wrong. Every time a stink arises, you can imagine them whispering, “Don’t tell the prime minister.”
Maybe if Parliament had been in session when this began, allowing for opposition oversight and some timely questioning, all this drama could have been avoided. But the Liberals made a deal with the New Democrats to shut that down for the summer. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe someone should have told the prime minister.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020