The Liberal government should take action to show Canadians it has learned something from the WE Charity controversy, then “reset” the political agenda with a new budget and a shuffle of cabinet ministers and top staff, Liberal insiders say.
The Hill Times spoke to veteran Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E..I), who chairs the House Finance Committee, former Liberal strategists Greg MacEachern and John Delacourt, and pollsters Frank Graves and Nik Nanos about the way forward for a Liberal government weighed down by yet another ethics scandal.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is investigating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) for the third time, as well as Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.), after reporting by CanadaLand and the CBC in late June revealed that the two had close ties with the charity to which their government had awarded a sole-sourced contract to deliver hundreds of millions worth of aid to students during the pandemic.
The WE Charity paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mr. Trudeau’s immediate family members during his time as prime minister for speaking engagements, after telling other WE speakers that the organization didn’t pay for that service. Two of Mr. Morneau’s daughters have ties to WE as well. Neither Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Morneau recused themselves from a cabinet decision to approve handing the contract to WE. They have since apologized and the partnership between the federal government and the charity was ended because of the controversy.
The government has said the decision to award the contract to WE was made by public servants alone, though Mr. Morneau’s office and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) had conversations with WE before that decision was made. Several executives and analysts in Canada’s charitable sector told The CBC in July that WE was not the only charity that could have delivered the student grant program, and in fact lacked experience and some of the connections needed to do so.
Nearly half of Canadians polled by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies at the end of July and beginning of August said they would support an election call if Mr. Dion finds that Mr. Trudeau has again violated ethics laws. Mr. Trudeau was found to have broken ethics rules twice before during his time as prime minister—once over his vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island, and more recently when he put pressure on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) to cut a deal to help Montreal’s SNC-Lavalin to avoid a prosecution on corruption charges.
Still, after a slight drop in the polls during the height of the controversy, the Liberals have rebounded. Polling by Nanos Research suggested support for the Liberals was at 36 per cent nationwide as of Aug. 8, just two percentage points below where it stood before the scandal. The Conservatives trailed at 30 per cent. Polling by Léger between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9 put the Liberals at 36 per cent and the Conservatives at 29 per cent. Polling by Ekos Research in mid-July put the Liberals at 35 per cent support, and the Conservatives at 30.
Historically, parties in Canada with support in the high 30s or above at election time have a good chance of winning a majority government.
The WE scandal had a “corrosive impact” on the public’s trust of Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal government, said Mr. Graves, the president of Ekos, but “it has not been catastrophic, and there’s some evidence that it has plateaued.”
“In the unlikely event that there was an election [now], they would win, probably pretty handily,” Mr. Graves said.
With a minority Parliament, and a vow from Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet (Beloeil-Chambly, Que.) to bring down the government, an election could come within the next year. However, the governing Liberals have yet to deliver on almost any of their promises from the last election, after a slow start in Parliament and a quick pivot to managing the all-consuming COVID-19 pandemic.
The government needs to “reset the narrative” in federal politics, said Mr. Nanos, the chair of Nanos Reseach, “because right now the narrative is decidedly against them, because of the WE controversy and how it is a negative overhang for them.”
For Mr. Easter, that should start with a federal budget. The government has not tabled a budget for 2020. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have pointed to the fast-changing demands on government spending during the pandemic as the reason. Federal budgets are primarily political documents, publicly pronouncing the government’s spending priorities, but are not required by law to be released.
“Absolutely we need a budget,” said Mr. Easter, who added that the Finance Committee had already received hundreds of submissions as part of its pre-budget consultations for 2021.
“All those issues should be laid out in a budget plan on how we’re going to move the country forward, and over time, how we’re going to address the costs that the pandemic has created,” he said.
Mr. Easter said it was “ridiculous” to call the WE charity story a scandal. “There has been no money misappropriated here, the name ‘scandal’ is very much an overreach,” he said.
Still, the government should take some action to show Canadians that its most senior members have learned something from the controversy.
“It’s certainly serious errors in judgement at many levels along the way,” said Mr. Easter, who said he was “shocked” by errors in “due diligence” by the Privy Council—the highest department in the federal public service—as well as among top political staffers in the government.
“They’re going to have to find a way to message to the public that, for heaven’s sake, lessons [were] learned by some of our senior ministers. Lessons learned in the PMO and at cabinet level,” he said.
People in P.E.I. are more concerned with the state of the economy than the WE controversy, he said, and whether businesses that rely heavily on ordinarily prosperous summer months will survive until the next season.
“The government needs to make sure that the financial security is going to be there through to the spring of 2021,” he said.
Focusing more on the economic recovery could help Mr. Trudeau with male voters, a demographic where the Liberals are struggling to get ahead, and who typically rank the economy and fiscal discipline as a higher priority than do women, said Mr. Graves.
Ekos found the Liberals trailing among men in July, with 31 per cent support compared to 34 per cent for the Tories. Women were far more likely to favour the Liberals—40 per cent versus 25 per cent for the Conservatives. Nanos Research showed similar figures earlier this month.
The Liberals can rebuild their image in part by highlighting any cooperation with some of the people and organizations that Canadians trust most, said Mr. MacEachern, whose firm, Proof Strategies, conducted a survey on that subject in April and May.
The survey found that municipal governments were deemed more trustworthy than other levels of government, and that doctors and scientists, who have been heavily involved in the national response to the pandemic, were among the most trusted people in the country.
Mr. Trudeau should also shuffle his cabinet and senior staffers in the government, said Mr. MacEachern, to refocus the government on the pandemic recovery. Mr. MacEachern, a Nova Scotia native, said Mr. Trudeau should think about rewarding Atlantic Canada for its support for the Liberal government—Ekos put support for the Grits at 45 per cent in the region, Nanos at 54 per cent—and bring more than the customary four Atlantic ministers into cabinet.
Mr. Easter said a cabinet shuffle could help the government get its best team for the pandemic recovery in place.
“The prime minister has to look at where we are on COVID-19, where we are on recovery,” he said. “If there has to be some moving of the players, to emphasize certain abilities that individuals have in order to move us forward more progressively on a recovery plan, then you have a shuffle,” said Mr. Easter.
A prorogation of Parliament would be another way to reset the agenda, said Mr. MacEachern.
Mr. Easter said a prorogation of Parliament was the last thing the country needed during a pandemic— “probably you need Parliament to be more involved”—unless it was only to last for a day before MPs returned. A prorogation would also trigger a Throne Speech and a confidence vote, at a time when Mr. Blanchet has vowed to try to bring down the government.
Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Morneau could just as easily deliver a speech in the House of Commons, laying out the government’s renewed priorities, without triggering a confidence vote, he said.
The Liberals should focus on initiatives that will gain support from the opposition in Parliament, said Mr. Delacourt. He mentioned pharmacare, a top priority for the NDP, as an example.
Plotting the country’s economic recovery will be the chief focus when the House returns, and finding consensus with the opposition “will be the overriding tactical consideration,” said Mr. Delacourt, who served in the Liberal Research Bureau and Liberal leader’s office in both government and opposition, and now works as a lobbyist for Hill and Knowlton.
Economy on the rocks
The province of Ontario, Canada’s economic engine, is now in a recession, the province’s finance minister, Rod Phillips, said on Aug. 12.
Alberta’s economy has been battered by both the COVID-19 pandemic and severe drop in oil prices, and businesses across the rest of the country are under pressure as well.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the dry weather and the end of the summer season has people in P.E.I.’s tourism, agricultural, and other seasonal industries worried.
The federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rolled out hundreds of billions worth of financial relief measures for individuals and businesses to try to stem the damage done by the pandemic. Finance Minister Bill Morneau predicted in a fiscal update in July that Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio would swell from 31 per cent to 49 per cent by the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year as a result.