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Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 20, 2020 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

“Do we really want a committee,” an incredulous Pablo Rodriguez, Government House Leader, asked reporters on Tuesday, “that has the power to force the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, all ministers, to drop their work, the important work they’re doing and come testify?”

There you have the nub of the question, at least as it occurs to Liberals. The committee in dispute, whose creation is the subject of a Conservative motion before Parliament, would study “allegations of misuse of public funds by the government,” notably the $912-million in public funds that WE Charity was supposed to manage – the subject of so much controversy earlier this year.

Why can’t an existing committee, such as the standing committees on ethics or finance, look into it? Because the Liberals have tied both committees up in knots, filibustering one and adjourning the other rather than surrender the documents each had requested.

This after the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament, forcing both committees to shut down for several weeks, although not before releasing thousands of pages of documents with the sensitive bits helpfully preredacted – a job that is supposed to be left to the committees themselves, as the House of Commons law clerk was moved to protest.

Having blocked the existing committees' inquiries, the government is now threatening to dissolve Parliament rather than allow the new committee to pick up where the previous ones left off, declaring Wednesday’s vote on the Conservative motion to be a matter of confidence.

Stonewalled committees, censored documents, even a snap election: A disinterested observer, presented with the government’s behaviour, might conclude it had something to hide. Not at all, the Liberals contend. It is merely that the government is so single-minded in its determination to fight the COVID-19 pandemic – an objective of such overriding importance as to admit no interruption or distraction, other than the odd general election.

That, you’ll recall, was the stated reason for prorogation last month: to allow the government to focus on the pandemic, in the service of which it produced a Speech from the Throne containing virtually no new pandemic-related measures, but rather a raft of recycled Liberal election promises on everything from housing to pharmacare.

The same refrain has been heard repeatedly since Parliament’s recall. The Prime Minister’s breezy defence of the government’s refusal to let a committee look into the matter? “We are entirely focused on this second wave of COVID-19. … The opposition can focus on whatever it is they want.”

And now the election threat and Mr. Rodriguez’s amazing justification of it: to avoid the degrading spectacle of ministers having to spend precious time answering questions from members of Parliament, rather than the “important work” of … whatever it is they do. Because, you see, that’s the choice. The government can fight the pandemic or it can answer questions about possible misuse of public funds. It can’t do both, apparently.

It is, of course, the government’s prerogative to declare any vote a matter of confidence if it chooses. Whether it should have that power is open to debate, but so long as it does, there is some expectation that it should not abuse it. As a matter of logic, nothing about the mere formation of a committee to look into something necessarily connotes loss of confidence in the government – or any question or criticism of any kind could be declared the same. Neither is there anything illogical or unparliamentary in the Opposition demanding such an inquiry without also demanding an election, as uncomfortable as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole looked in the attempt.

But then, logic has nothing to do with any of this. The Liberals are ahead in the polls; the Conservatives are behind. Blocking any further inquiry into the WE affair might hurt them in the polls, but not as much, they have evidently calculated, as allowing it to proceed. Ergo, the Liberals are more willing to risk an election than the Conservatives. That is the only logic, or principle, underpinning either party’s position.

There will be much negotiating and brinksmanship before it comes to that. The Conservatives have already made a concession in the committee’s proposed name, from its original “anti-corruption” mandate. The Liberals have counterproposed with a committee to look at all pandemic spending, not just that related to the WE program, albeit under a Liberal chair. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois will take up positions at different intervals between them.

Possibly one side or the other will have to climb down. Possibly some compromise will emerge that is satisfactory to both. Possibly the government will fall and the country will be plunged into an election campaign. The polls alone will tell.

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