Joe Oliver: Is there enough room under the bus for all the WE scandal's victims?
Leadership means taking responsibility for mistakes and not scapegoating subordinates. Trudeau’s defence strategy is neither credible nor admirable
So many implausible, self-serving and illogical explanations have been advanced to defend the prime minister’s involvement with the WE Charity student program that it is difficult to decide which to reject first. One evident purpose for all the imaginative argumentation from politicians, political operatives and public servants is to defend themselves by targeting victims, guilty or not, and throw them under the bus. The other is to hurl mess against the wall and hope the distasteful spectacle will divert the public from a central indisputable reality: Justin Trudeau and his government supported a massive sole-source contract with a financially troubled labyrinthian charitable/for profit conglomerate with which he, his relatives, several cabinet colleagues and senior political staff had close relationships — the Conflict of Interest Act and perhaps even the Criminal Code be damned.
I say “indisputable” because none of the convoluted justifications contradicts that reality. The Ethics Commissioner, and perhaps the RCMP, will determine whether statutes have been breached. Meanwhile, a heavy political penalty is being levied on Trudeau’s popularity, which, according to Angus Reid, is now 54 per cent unfavourable and just 44 per cent favourable, reflecting, no doubt, the cumulative impact of his previous behavioural lapses and ethical violations.
Let’s dispose of some of the detritus that poses as argument. Ian Shugart, Clerk of the Privy Council, has made several dubious comments, possibly intended to help his political masters, but which, ironically, assisted the PM in throwing the civil service to the wolves. His statement that “the prime minister’s involvement with the charity over a long period of time was of course in the public domain” seemed to imply the PM was somehow sanitized because everyone knew about the conflict. That is inconsistent with both conflict-of-interest law and common sense.
And in fact Shugart had not known the PM’s mother and brother had received payments for speeches from WE Charity or that Morneau’s family was involved (under the bus you go, minister). Yet Trudeau claimed he asked the public service to do due diligence after he had been shocked, shocked to first learn about WE’s proposal.
Shugart could not imagine how the government could go ahead without the involvement of the PM and minister of finance. What are the deputy PM and associate finance minister, chopped liver? If the big boys were so critical of such a highly problematic decision, the obvious course was to say no. There was also an absence of the most elementary due diligence into WE’s financial problems (including breach of its banking covenants) and governance (with almost the entire board having resigned or been dismissed). Either could have been a fatal impediment if uncovered earlier. Shugart’s seeming reluctance to learn too much about things that might be uncomfortable to confront raises questions about his own performance.
I doubt the PM’s first clerk, Janice Charette, would have remained silent. But she was moved out in 2016 (because it was 2016?), despite her competence, perhaps because Trudeau was not interested in a bureaucrat with backbone. If fear of pushback was indeed part of moving her off to be High Commissioner to the U.K., this early sidelining of a strong woman was remarkably short-sighted: a principled civil service can protect a government by speaking truth to power.
Last week, parliamentarians were treated to audacious new arguments from the PM and his chief of staff, Katie Telford. With straight faces, they claimed to have been unaware of the WE proposal for weeks. It strains credulity that a $910-million program was pursued without the PM or his office knowing, especially given their closeness to the sponsor. In my experience, that is not the way government works.
An even bigger nose-stretcher is that, when he finally found out, Trudeau was so troubled that he “pushed back” on the idea. It is passing strange that neither he nor any of his acolytes bothered to tell the public he had raised the “perception” problem, which would have reassured us earlier he is an exemplar of moral rectitude.
After an apparently superficial investigation, the public service presented the decision as binary: either WE administers the program or it isn’t done. So Trudeau felt he had to go ahead, and decided he might as well vote for it in spite of his acknowledged conflicts. As Brian Mulroney told John Turner in a knockout debate blow in 1984, “You had an option, sir — to say no.” And there were obvious alternatives to WE, including the civil service, which, with summer halfway over, is trying to salvage the Student Service Grant.
The PM’s latest tall tale would have the public service and possibly his minister of finance take the fall. How promising for Mark Carney, especially if Bill Morneau can be persuaded to resign his safe Toronto Centre seat. Sorry, Chrystia Freeland, your coronation may be contested.
Leadership means taking responsibility for mistakes and not scapegoating subordinates. Trudeau’s defence strategy is neither credible nor admirable.