Election Narrowly Averted as Liberals Spar With Opposition Over Ethics Probe

Just one year after Canadians last headed to the polls, another election was avoided as the NDP voted with the Liberal government against a Tory motion that the Liberals had set as a confidence vote. The prospect of a snap election amid the second wave of the pandemic loomed this week as the Liberals and Conservatives sparred over the Tory’s push to create a special “anticorruption” committee that would scrutinize WE Charity and other pandemic relief programs the Conservatives flagged as being carried out unethically.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 21, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick) The opposition motion would have given the proposed committee broad powers to call witnesses, including the prime minister and other ministers, and to demand documents on a range of issues, such as speaking fees paid to Trudeau’s family members by WE Charity in recent years. The committee would also delve into deals the Conservative allege favoured Liberal friends, such as the contract given to former Liberal MP Frank Baylis’ company for ventilators not yet approved by Health Canada.  The Liberals vowed to make the motion a confidence matter, saying that if the opposition parties unite to pass it, that effectively means the House of Commons has lost faith in the government, which would trigger an election. That election failed to come to fruition on Oct. 21, with the NDP, Greens, and two Independent MPs voting against the Tory motion, while the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois voted in favour. Swords Drawn Over Committee’s Scope  Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez called the Conservative motion a “blatantly partisan proposal” that would “paralyze the government,” compelling everyone from the prime minister to rank-and-file civil servants to testify, and snarl the work of the government at a time when everyone ought to be focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 21, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick) Given that a number of committees had been looking into the controversies, including the WE Charity affair, before Trudeau prorogued Parliament this summer, the Conservatives argued that creating a focused committee would free up those other committees and allow them to refocus on other issues. The Liberals unsuccessfully countered the Tory motion with a proposal for a committee with a narrower mandate to review federal COVID-19 program spending. Their version would include six Liberal MPs and six members of the opposition parties. The Tories’ version would have 15 MPs, with the opposition holding the majority. All four parties insisted that none of them wanted an election, but the Liberals said the Tories have left them no choice, while the Tories and Bloc Quebecois laid the fault at the government’s feet. Several parliamentary committees had been probing the WE Charity deal before the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August. The program was immediately engulfed in controversy over the fact that WE Charity, an organization that Trudeau and his family members had long been involved with, was given a $43.5 million contract to administer a pandemic relief program for students. In recent months, the Tories, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois have also all raised concerns that the Liberals are trying to avoid extensive scrutiny of contracts and programs set up to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition have alleged that the decision to prorogue Parliament in August was to shut down the work of existing committees probing WE Charity. Efforts to resume their work last month have been stymied by the Liberals’ decision to filibuster committees where they have control. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press) New Docs Reveal Payments to Trudeau’s Family More light was shed on the interaction between WE Charity and the government on Oct. 19 with the release of dozens of pages of documents previously demanded by the Finance Committee. They include details of fees paid to, and expenses covered for, members of the Trudeau family who participated in WE events. According to the documents, the PM’s family members received over $427,000 combined from WE Charity in the form of speaking fees, amenities, and gifts. The charity had previously said Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife, had been paid a $1,500 speaking fee for one appearance. The documents released Oct. 19 also disclosed that the charity covered $23,940.76 in expenses for eight appearances between February 2012 and March 2020. Trudeau released details of his own on Oct. 19, showing that he received about $1.3 million in speaking fees for 125 engagements between January 2006 and June 2012, figures and details that had already been previously disclosed when he ran for leadership of the Liberal party in 2013. Third Committee Filibustered In addition to holding up investigations in the finance and ethics committees through filibusters, opposition MPs have also accused the Liberals of hampering their efforts to investigate the government’s pandemic response. Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP and shadow minister for health, said the Liberals are stymying a motion she put forward in the Health Committee on Oct. 16 that would look into the government’s handling of the pandemic.  Rempel said in a release that the committee received an email from fellow committee member and Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski with instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, “telling Liberals to move the committee meeting behind closed doors,” and to “block committee members from getting key documents” including those that show why the early pandemic warning system was shut down and decisions surrounding the procurement of medical protective equipment and access to rapid testing in Canada. With files from The Canadian Press

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Liberals Survive Confidence Vote in the Commons With NDP and Green Backing

OTTAWA—The Liberal minority government survives another day after a majority of MPs voted against a Conservative motion to create a special anticorruption committee. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had declared the vote on the Conservative motion a confidence measure, meaning that a vote in the Commons to pass it would have triggered an election. The New Democrats voted against the motion, with Jagmeet Singh saying earlier today his party would not give the Liberals an excuse to head to the polls. The Greens and two Independent MPs also voted against it, while the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois voted in favour. That brought the result to 180 against the motion and 146 in favour. The showdown was over the scope and composition of a House of Commons committee that would have investigated the WE Charity affair and other issues the Conservatives said reek of Ottawa sending pandemic-related funding to Liberal friends.

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Trudeau Liberals Face Confidence Vote Over Proposed Anticorruption Committee

OTTAWA—A dispute over the scope and composition of a House of Commons committee will come to a head today in a vote that could trigger a federal election in the midst of the second deadly wave of COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that the vote on a Conservative motion to create a special anticorruption committee will be test of confidence in his minority Liberal government. The Conservatives are willing to drop “anticorruption” from the name of their proposed committee but the intent remains the same: to create an opposition-dominated committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other issues the official Opposition maintains reek of the government funnelling pandemic-related funding to Liberal friends. The motion would give the committee broad powers to call witnesses, including the prime minister and other ministers, and to demand documents on a range of issues, including the speaking fees earned by Trudeau’s mother and brother over the past 12 years. The Liberals maintain the committee would amount to a time-consuming fishing expedition that would paralyze the government when it should be focused on helping Canadians get through the second wave of the pandemic. They’ve proposed their own special committee to examine all government pandemic-related spending, including but not exclusively the WE affair and other matters the Opposition deems suspicious. The Bloc Quebecois is planning to support the Conservative motion but NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused Tuesday to give a clear indication of what his party will do. New Democrats have said they believe the Conservative motion is “over the top,” but they’ve also said the Liberal counter-proposal isn’t good enough—particularly since it calls for a Liberal chair rather than allowing an opposition member to preside. Singh said Tuesday that making the issue a test of confidence is absurd and that his party won’t take part in a “farce” that gives Trudeau an excuse to force an election. Should New Democrats abstain on today’s vote, the Liberals and combined Conservative and Bloc MPs would have an equal number of votes, 153 each. That would leave the three Green and two independent MPs to decide the fate of the government. The dispute comes after the Liberals filibustered opposition attempts to revive their investigations into the WE affair at the Commons finance and ethics committees, whose probes were shut down when Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August. The controversy revolves around the government’s decision last June to pay WE Charity $43.5 million to administer a now-cancelled student service grant program, despite Trudeau’s long-standing family ties to the organization. Trudeau has said public servants recommended WE as the only group that could manage the program. He has nevertheless apologized for not recusing himself from the decision to involve WE, as has former finance minister Bill Morneau, who also has close family ties to WE. Both Trudeau and Morneau are under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act.

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Marathon Meetings: Liberals Filibuster Opposition on Redacted Documents, Reopening WE Investigation

The Liberals and opposition parties battled for hours in two committee meetings on Oct. 15 over the reopening of the WE Charity investigation and the release of  redacted documents. The finance committee debated for 11 hours over a motion brought by the Conservatives to denounce the redactions of roughly 5,000 pages of WE documents released by the Liberals in August. Liberal MPs Peter Fragiskatos and Julie Dzerowicz repeatedly defended the blacked-out portions of the documents, saying they contain the phone numbers of civil servants or the codes of conference-call lines of the government. Finance critic Pierre Poilievre wasn’t convinced, saying on Twitter: “Liberals enter 9th hour of filibustering Finance Committee motion to unblackout WE scandal documents. There must be some bombshells in those docs for them to go to these lengths.” Meanwhile, the ethics committee spent 10 hours debating a Conservative motion to call on Speakers’ Spotlight, the agency that arranged speaking engagements for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife, mother, and brother at WE Charity events, to hand over 12 years of receipts for the trio’s paid appearances. Liberal members of the ethics committee complained that delving into the financial affairs of the prime minister’s relatives go beyond their involvement with WE. They also argued that the scope proposed by the motion should be handled by the ethics commissioner instead of MPs. In addition, the Liberals digressed to topics unrelated to the WE affair. MP Han Dong stressed that the ethics committee should instead focus their discussion on anti-racism strategies and the impact of facial recognition technology on people of colour. When opposition MPs questioned the relevancy of Dong’s suggestion, Liberal MP Greg Fergus, chair of the parliamentary Black caucus, intervened saying that they interrupted Dong due to unconscious bias. “I know it’s not the intent of my honourable colleagues, but it just reminds me of the micro-aggressions that a lot of Canadians of colour face. I don’t hear other members being interrupted,” he said, urging them to allow Dong to continue speaking. Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre holds up redacted documents during a press conference on Parliament Hill on Aug. 19, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press) New Democrat MP Charlie Angus countered that if the Liberals want to get on with a study of facial-recognition technology or anything else, they need only let the WE documents motion come to a vote and the committee could move on. “I’m asking him not to play games, not to throw these heavily loaded insinuations down at my colleagues,” Angus said. “If he wants to talk about something, just bring this to a vote so we can get this thing done.” Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara argued that the motion violates the privacy of the prime minister’s mother and brother. Conservative MPs countered that the Liberals are engaged in covering up for Trudeau. “The action of a multi-day filibuster by members of the government is a government-led coverup,” said Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett. Both meetings ended with no resolution when the Bloc Quebecois MPs joined the Liberals in voting to pause, but the finance committee was scheduled to continue their debate on Oct. 16. However, the meeting was cancelled that morning, according to opposition parties. “After promising to call a Finance Committee for 11am today, the Liberal Chair reneged and canceled today’s hearing,” Poilievre wrote on Twitter. “Trudeau is prepared to grind committees to a halt to keep the truth from coming out in the WE scandal.” NDP MP Peter Julian also announced the cancellation on Twitter, at the same time criticizing the Liberals for stalling over 200 hours to prevent disclosure of the redacted documents. “What is the Prime Minister hiding?” he wrote. Angus took to Twitter on Oct. 16, saying Trudeau, who once championed more access to information, is now doing the opposite. Remember when @JustinTrudeau was the champion of access to documents?"We are barred from having access to information that the government itself has full control of.We are asked to do our work in total darkness.How can the government justify this charade?"#thatwasthen pic.twitter.com/2Uxaf9tBFE — Charlie Angus NDP (@CharlieAngusNDP) October 16, 2020 WE Charity, which was to have been paid $43.5 million to manage a now-defunct federal student volunteering program, disclosed that it paid Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau more than $350,000 over the years. Trudeau’s family ties to WE Charity plunged the student grant program into controversy the moment it was announced last June. WE pulled out within days and has since repaid all money advanced by the federal government to run the program. Four committees, including the ethics and finance committees, had launched or were preparing to launch investigations into the affair when Trudeau prorogued Parliament, bringing all committee work to a halt. With files from The Canadian Press

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