One of the mysteries around the whole WE Charity controversy has revolved around this question: where were Justin Trudeau’s political instincts?
For a prime minister who has been a master of image and perception, Trudeau would be expected to immediately recognize the perils of pairing his government with a charity so closely tied to his family.
In political marketing terms, it was an extremely risky merger of brands — one that would have stopped any professional brand manager in his tracks. Or, as the political pros say, the optics weren’t ideal.
On Thursday, in a rare appearance before a Commons committee, Trudeau testified that his instincts about optics hadn’t completely failed him in this whole mess: he said he “pushed back” when he first learned on May 8 that WE and the Liberal “we” were going into business together to give pandemic relief to students.
Trudeau didn’t say “no,” he claimed, but rather “not now.” He pushed back, “slowed it down,” but he didn’t slam his foot on the brakes.
“When I learned that WE Charity was recommended, I pushed back,” Trudeau said. “I know that appearances can harm a good program, and of course, that’s exactly what happened here.”
Trudeau also knows that failure to appear can speak volumes in politics, and that’s what landed him in front of the finance committee for 90 minutes on Thursday to testify that he wasn’t using his office to benefit friends of his family or government.
But this controversy is not all about optics. From the moment it exploded over the government’s decision to contract out an aid program for students to the WE Charity, there have been two raging debates — and they are not mutually exclusive.
Was this a failure of political perception? Was it a contravention of the ethics rules? Or is it both? In either case, it’s argued, Trudeau and the Prime Minister’s Office should have seen this coming.
On this point, many serious Liberals and their opposition critics have agreed — Trudeau’s inability to anticipate this furor was inexplicable, given how seriously this imbroglio has taken his government off track.
The prime minister’s testimony on Thursday, and that of his chief of staff, Katie Telford, went part of the way to answering the crucial “what were they thinking” question, in terms of perception and rules.
Trudeau’s political instincts only slowed things down, he explained, by kicking the decision down the road. As for the worries about ethics rules, it’s not like the people in the PMO were completely unconcerned.
As Telford testified in some detail, the ethics commissioner had cleared the prime minister’s wife to deal with the WE Charity for her podcast and travel.
This was new information, and will reassure people (mainly Liberals) who feared the Trudeau government just shrugged — or worse, applauded — when the WE proposal arrived at the top ranks for rubber stamping. It didn’t get rubber stamped.
Still, it’s not the same as asking the ethics commissioner about whether the government as a whole — not just the prime minister’s wife — should get entangled with WE Charity.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper did a good job on Thursday of making that distinction, asking Telford why the prime minister’s fears about perception didn’t turn into a full-fledged inquiry about the rules.
Or, in other words, if this government had gone to the trouble of asking the ethics commissioner whether it was OK for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to deal with WE Charity, why not ask when it came to something much larger — like giving a charity responsibility to hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID relief?
The New Democrats’ Charlie Angus was also adept at boiling his questions down to the ones that are on the minds of many Canadians, and even some Liberals. More in sorrow than in anger — not an entirely familiar look for Angus — he asked how this had all happened while the country was in the midst of a pandemic and political parties had suspended their usual partisan antagonism.
“It comes down fundamentally to a question of your judgment,” Angus said. “There were numerous red flags with this proposal.”
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Trudeau, in reply, expressed the same regret, saying he was sorry that this had all ended up where we (not WE) are now.
The prime minister’s testimony hasn’t ended the saga. There remains an ethics commissioner’s inquiry. The opposition is saying that it has a lot more questions about time lines, and who said yes and no.
As he did on May 8, Trudeau has pushed back — a development that may not put the brakes on this controversy, but possibly slowed it down.