So the government lives, whether it likes it or not. By voting against a Conservative motion to set up a committee of inquiry into the WE Charity scandal, the NDP has helped the Liberals win a vote they might have preferred to lose.
The Liberals, that is, had earlier declared the vote a matter of confidence; had they lost the vote, they would probably have won the ensuing election. By voting with the government, then, the NDP actually voted against the government. If you follow.
So the government lives, the motion is defeated, the WE cover-up continues, Parliament is a laughingstock. Same time next week?
Because this is not the end of it. The Liberals may not have succeeded in forcing an election, but they did succeed in quashing the committee. A terrible precedent has thus been set. Should Parliament attempt to hold the government to account in a way the government does not like, we now know, it has only to threaten to dissolve Parliament to prevent it.
It was a committee to look into allegations of improper use of public funds this time. It will be something else the next. Already there is speculation, officially denied, that the government might use the same tactic to block a Conservative motion to have the standing committee on Health investigate its handling of the pandemic. They’ll be calling Question Period a matter of confidence before long.
The temptation is to treat the whole thing as a bit of parliamentary fun and games, the sort of procedural squabbling or partisan point-scoring that is the ordinary stuff of politics – a show, that is, in which no great issues are at stake and the question is not who’s right or who’s wrong, but who gave the best performance.
But the question of whether we are governed corruptly is not such light-hearted business, and the right of Parliament to get to the bottom of such allegations – to call ministers to answer questions, to demand the production of documents, and such – is non-negotiable. And yet, four months after the WE affair came to light, we are scarcely closer to the bottom than when we started.
This is not because of “partisan wrangling.” It is not because the parties are “deadlocked” or can’t agree to “make Parliament work.” It is because the government has gone to quite extraordinary lengths – censoring documents, proroguing Parliament, filibustering committees, now threatening dissolution – to prevent MPs from doing their jobs.
That the government awarded a no-bid contract to administer a $912-million program to WE, notwithstanding its manifest financial and managerial problems, is not in doubt. Neither is it in doubt that WE, among other services to the Liberal Party and its leader, had earlier paid substantial sums to the Prime Minister’s wife, his brother and his mother, as well as his former finance minister.
The only question is what happened in between: whether the Prime Minister, besides signing off on the contract – a serious ethical breach in itself – was in fact behind it, directly or indirectly, from the start, or whether, as he maintains, the whole dubious enterprise was at the behest of senior civil servants, whose advice he was powerless to resist. Anyone with any familiarity with how Ottawa works, not least under this government, scoffs at the suggestion. But the evidence, if it exists, will be in the documents the government refuses to uncover.
That, more than the scandal itself, is what is at issue here. It is the inability of Parliament to assert its authority – or rather, it is the easy self-assurance with which the government defies its authority. It is often said that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” but in this case, the government can’t even be bothered to cover up the cover-up. It is going on right in front of us, day after day, week after week, month after month. That is the issue.
Or no, it’s not even that. It’s the fatuous defences the government offers for its behaviour, so palpably flimsy that they seem almost intended to advertise its disdain. Ministers haven’t time to answer questions in committee because they’re too busy fighting the pandemic? Demanding to know what payments the Prime Minister’s family members might have received from an organization in receipt of public funds is an invasion of privacy? Do they take us for children?
By comparison, the government’s narrow procedural argument – that striking a committee to look into these questions amounts to a declaration of non-confidence in the government – looks positively Aristotelian. But, persuasive as it may seem – “if you think the government is corrupt, surely you have no confidence in it” – it’s nonsense. The opposition exists to oppose. Its job is to offer criticism, demand answers, suggest alternatives. It is its nature to be dissatisfied with the government, and to prefer that it were in power and the government in opposition.
But to vote non-confidence in a government is to express something much more specific than mere dissatisfaction, or even strident opposition. It is to say that things have reached such a pass the government may not remain in power for even another day. It must resign at once, making way either for another party to govern or for a general election. If the opposition intended a motion to create a committee to be a matter of confidence in the government, it would have said so; in fact, it was explicit in rejecting the suggestion.
It was the government that declared it a confidence matter. That it has the power to do so, much as it has the power to decide, on its own, whether to prorogue, or cut off debate, and so on, is not in doubt. Whether it should have these powers, given its habit of abusing them, ought very much to be.
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