Liberal MPs rejected a motion on Tuesday to invite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a House of Commons committee to testify about breaking Canada's ethics laws over two all-expense-paid family trips to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.
Instead, Mr. Trudeau can answer questions about the trips at town halls across the country and when Question Period resumes at the end of the month, two Liberal MPs argued.
The House of Commons ethics committee convened on Tuesday for a special meeting to discuss the motion from Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent. It asked that Mr. Trudeau be invited to testify next week about former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson's December report, which found that Mr. Trudeau violated four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act regarding two family trips taken to Bells Cay in 2016.
The private island is owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, whose organizations deal frequently with the federal government. In her ruling, Ms. Dawson rejected Mr. Trudeau's assertion that his host was a close friend and found that the trips could be seen as a gift to influence Mr. Trudeau.
The six-member Liberal majority on the nine-member committee voted together to defeat Mr. Kent's motion. Mr. Kent and his colleague, Quebec MP Jacques Gourde, supported it, as did NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen.
Only two Liberal MPs spoke at committee – Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith in English and Ottawa MP Mona Fortier in French – and both made similar points, arguing that Mr. Trudeau had apologized and taken full responsibility for his actions.
"Using this format, our ethics committee, to re-litigate questions that we're going to hear in Question Period, I don't think is appropriate," Mr. Erskine-Smith, who has criticized his government in the past over its handling of the electoral reform file, said after the meeting.
"As any Canadian, I don't want to see any public office holder violate the act, but the Prime Minister was sincere in his apology and I think that's the important thing."
The vote came hours after the Prime Minister suggested the uncommon request was little more than an Opposition effort to score political points, citing "partisan attacks and mudslinging" when asked by a CBC radio interviewer in Halifax whether he'd be willing to appear at the committee. A Liberal official told the Globe and Mail earlier on Tuesday that Liberal MPs weren't expected to agree to calling Mr. Trudeau as a witness.
Opposition MPs accused the Liberals of taking their cues from the Prime Minister's Office, although three of them – Mr. Erskine Smith, Ms. Fortier and Ontario MP Chris Bittle – denied being told how to vote. When asked why she was reading from notes, Mr. Fortier said, "I prepared my own lines to make sure that I was saying exactly what I wanted to say."
Mr. Cullen said he was disappointed the Liberals chose to vote down the motion.
"We had Liberals line up, toe the party line and almost speak verbatim from talking points I assume were prepared by the Prime Minister's Office," he said.
"I think Mr. Trudeau is more than capable and competent enough to come to a committee, and do his job, which is to be accountable to Canadians and accountable to Parliament."
Both Mr. Kent and Mr. Cullen said the committee would be an ideal forum for Mr. Trudeau to explain himself in detail, including how he views his business relationships, the culture of ethics in his office and potential improvements to the Conflict of Interest Act.
"I believe there is a political price to be paid for failing to answer…and committing in a meaningful way to reform his ways," Mr. Kent said.
The opposition MPs have also called on Mr. Trudeau to repay at least some of his December 2016 trip, which cost at least $215,000, although Mr. Cullen said he wouldn't expect the prime minister to repay security costs.
During an appearance on CBC Radio's Information Morning in Halifax, Trudeau was asked directly whether he'd be willing to appear before the committee.
"We have an ethics commissioner that is above partisan politics, to make rulings and to look into things, to help Canadians separate the partisan attacks and mud slinging and the politics from what actually happened," said Mr. Trudeau, who is in Halifax for a town hall meeting later Tuesday.
"As I've said, I'm happy to work with the ethics commissioner. I think keeping politics and partisan attacks to the side on this is what Canadians expect."
Ms. Dawson, who retired from her post on Monday, is set to appear at the committee on Wednesday.
- With a report from Daniel Leblanc and The Canadian Press