National Post (QUEBEC)
CANADA | A4
Prime minister won't say if he plans to testify
by: Ryan Tumilty
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces multiple parliamentary investigations over his handling of a sole-sourced contract to WE Charity, but unlike during the SNC-Lavalin scandal he could be forced to testify about his actions.
Trudeau apologized Monday for failing to recuse himself from the decision to put WE in charge of a $900-million student-volunteer program, despite hefty speaking fees his mother and brother received from the organization. Finance Minister Bill Morneau issued a similar statement because his daughters are involved in the charity.
But that won't be the last word on the issue as both the finance and government operations committees of Parliament have decided to study the contract. Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said over the weekend that he intends to put the prime minister on the finance committee witness list.
Conservative members of the ethics committee were pushing for a third investigation at that committee. Ontario MP Michael Barrett said it is important this is studied from every angle, including what measures are in place to stop such conflicts of interest from taking place.
"We've seen over the last five years with Justin Trudeau that his judgment isn't sufficient to safeguard against violations of the Conflict of Interest Act," he said.
Trudeau was part of Cabinet discussions approving the arrangement despite his family's financial ties to the organization. WE backed out of the arrangement after the controversy began and has returned the funds, but it was set to be paid nearly $20 million to administer the $900-million program.
The news website Canadaland first revealed that WE had paid $312,000 to Trudeau's mother, Margaret, and $40,000 to his brother, Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau for speaking fees. As well as $1,400 for a single appearance to Trudeau's wife, Sophie GrÃ©goire Trudeau, back in 2012. Those amounts include a 20 per cent commission to the speaking agency.
In addition to the parliamentary committees, the ethics commissioner has launched an investigation, but results from that are expected to take months.
Most witnesses at parliamentary committees appear voluntarily, but in some cases they can be mandated and ordered to appear. Earlier this year, the House of Commons Health committee summoned Dr. Bruce Aylward with the World Health Organization to appear before the committee.
Aylward is out of the country, which is one of the limitations of a parliamentary summons, but the other is that by practice, committees can't force a prime minister or even an MP to testify in front of them.
Should Trudeau refuse an invite from any of the committees, Parliament as a whole would have to consider next steps and a potential vote to force his appearance.
Barrett said he doubts Trudeau's apology, but if the prime minister wanted to prove he was remorseful showing up to committee to answer questions without a parliamentary fight would be a good start.
"I contend that he's just sorry he got caught. And if he is in fact contrite, then I expect to see him give a nice little account to finance committee," he said.
Trudeau was circumspect Monday about whether he will appear.
"We have a number of ministers and officials testifying this week to answer questions at committee and I will look at any invitations that come in and discuss them with my house leadership team," he said.
NDP MP Peter Julian said there are far too many open questions about the program and he believes there could be more parliamentary committees studying the issue.
"At this point, there's just so many contradictions between what has been said and what seems to be the actual facts," he said.
During the SNC-Lavalin scandal, an attempt by MPs at the justice committee to bring back former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to testify a secondtime was thwarted because the Liberals had a majority on the committee.
Julian said that sort of obfuscation won't happen this time, so the prime minister should simply make himself available.
"If he refuses to come to the committee to answer these questions that sends a pretty strong signal to the Canadian public."
Kevin Deveaux, a lawyer and expert on parliaments, said the minority Parliament will give the opposition much more power to dig into this issue than they had during the SNC-Lavalin affair.
"Under the minority Parliament when the government doesn't have control of the committees, when the majority are in other parties in opposition, there's a much broader scope for them to be able to vote on and to move forward."
If Trudeau declines to appear at committee hearings, Deveaux said, the opposition could force the issue during a full vote of Parliament, but they would have to be united to make it happen.
"If the main opposition parties can get their ducks in a row they could get that in a motion, but that wouldn't be until September."
Parliament is scheduled to resume in September, but parties are continuing to debate how it will resume sittings during the pandemic.
Deveaux said Trudeau and his advisers are likely debating the choice between having him testify at committee or a showdown in a minority Parliament this fall.
"You have to weigh the option of letting this recede or bubble up for a couple of months and having a motion come up when the House comes back."
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