Justin Trudeau is not likely to make any new friends on Thursday during his grilling at the House of Commons finance committee.
But that’s just as well. After a month of controversy over whether this prime minister and his government were too friendly to WE Charity, the only kind of relationships Trudeau should be cultivating are the ones he can keep at a safe distance.
Opinion is divided, even in Liberal circles, about whether Trudeau was wise to offer himself up for questioning about his ties to WE Charity, and how this may have influenced the now-much-regretted decision to contract out the operation of a grant program for student volunteers to Craig and Marc Kielburger’s organization.
The facts are all out in the open: the money and publicity WE Charity gave to Trudeau’s wife, mother and brother; the numerous ways in which the celebrity brands of WE Charity and Trudeau intermingled over the years.
All that is so well-known and obvious that the main question to Trudeau on Thursday has to be, what were you thinking? The same will apply to the prime minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, when she gets her turn on the committee stand, right after her boss.
Trudeau has already expressed his regrets for what happened when the WE Charity proposal landed before his cabinet — he should have recused himself from the discussion, and he didn’t.
Why he didn’t remains a mystery that committee members may well want to explore. Did he forget? Is it the case, as former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson suggested on CBC recently, that this prime minister has a “blind spot” when it comes to entanglements that involve his family?
How WE Charity became a most-favoured organization for this particular case of pandemic relief is slightly less of a mystery, now that the public servants and the Kielburgers have testified that the idea was batted around between them in the days before and after Trudeau’s announcement of the program for students.
No evidence has emerged — nor is any expected to on Thursday — that Trudeau or members of his staff did the direct matchmaking between WE Charity and the government.
The prime minister, then, will probably be trying to make sure that’s where the committee’s questions remain focused on Thursday — on whether the Prime Minister’s Office was insulated from the actual selection of WE Charity to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds.
Clearly, Conservatives and New Democrats won’t be inclined to limit their inquiries to those strict boundaries. On Wednesday, both parties were promising to get the “truth” from Trudeau, with that word figuring prominently in news conferences by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre — the implication being that something less than the truth has been told to date.
Liberals have left themselves open to that accusation, with the slow, drip-by-drip reveal that has become a trademark of this government in dealing with controversies. Finance Minister Bill Morneau contributed to this perception by arriving at his committee appearance with newly found and damaging evidence about his ties to WE Charity. Privately, even the most staunch Liberals are frustrated by their knack for finding more damaging material — in slow motion — after the initial damage is done.
Assuming that Trudeau is not going to pull a Morneau by revealing more self-inflicted wounds at the committee on Thursday, the hard questions he should face are all about what he failed to do when WE Charity came onto the government’s radar:
- Why didn’t the prime minister foresee the connections that would be made between the charity and his family? His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, caught the COVID-19 virus in March while she was on a trip to a WE Charity event in London, as Poilievre reminded reporters on Wednesday.
- Why didn’t he or his officials know about the money that his mother and brother had been paid by WE Charity?
- Why didn’t he know about the finance minister’s ties to WE Charity, both through Morneau’s daughter’s employment and trips by Morneau’s family that were sponsored by the charity?
Questions about what didn’t happen are the toughest ones to ask in politics — and also some of the most difficult to answer. But they are really at the heart of what went wrong in this whole saga — the “blind spot,” as former ethics commissioner Dawson said.
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Unlike the previous ethical controversies in which Trudeau has found himself, we’re talking here about errors of omission, as opposed to commission — which is why Liberals themselves are quietly admitting (off the record, of course) that they’re vexed by this one.
So perhaps the most basic question for Trudeau’s big appearance on Thursday needs a slight amendment. Maybe it’s not about what he was thinking, but what he wasn’t thinking about when he got too friendly with WE Charity.
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