Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s summer prorogation worked precisely as designed.
The expressed purpose, you’ll recall, was to push the “reset” button on Parliament so that the government could set a fresh legislative agenda. The previous Throne Speech, read eight months earlier, was no longer relevant to a country in the midst of a pandemic, so it made sense to dissolve Parliament to chart a course for a new one.
It just so happened, Liberals claimed fantastically, that the decision to prorogue Parliament was made at the apex of the WE Charity scandal: a day after Bill Morneau resigned as Finance Minister and abruptly left government altogether.
The scandal had been brewing by that time for weeks, escalating from what was initially a curious decision to appoint WE the administrator of the Canada Student Service Grant, to a sudden parting of ways one week later, to revelations about speaking fees paid to Trudeau family members, to the launching of an investigation on the matter by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, to an admission by Mr. Morneau that he was gifted a trip by WE to the tune of $41,000, to Mr. Trudeau himself testifying before the finance committee, to leaks about a rift between Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau, to, finally, the resignation.
Mr. Trudeau asked the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament one day after Mr. Morneau’s hasty exit, which at once shut down committee probing on the matter and killed the momentum of the runaway scandal. But the timing, the Prime Minister assured the green and gullible, was just a coincidence: The point of prorogation was to chart a new course for Canada as it navigates through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that new course, as detailed in the Throne Speech read a little over one month later, ended up sounding an awful lot like the old one; it was almost entirely composed of recycled promises and re-emphasized priorities, with a handful of references to COVID-19 thrown in. The green and gullible might have been shocked to realize that perhaps that whole prorogation matter wasn’t about setting a new agenda at all – especially since, now months later, the Liberals are condemning and even filibustering efforts to revive investigations into the WE scandal.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau criticized the Conservatives for pushing for a special committee to continue probing the matter while Canada grapples with a second wave of COVID-19. “The opposition can focus on whatever it is they want,” he said. “We will stay focused on Canadians.”
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez was even more direct on Twitter on Monday: “Canada is in the midst of a second wave and people are worried about their health and their jobs. But the Conservatives' priority is to play politics in committees.”
The Liberals' position, thus, is that now is not the time to be probing an issue that they forced the opposition to put off probing until now. It’s a beautiful manipulation, expertly executed.
Any political strategist worth his or her salt knows that a fire starved of oxygen will eventually go out, and a second flame will need time to grow before it can burn with the same ferocity – if it gets there at all. That’s what the Prime Minister achieved by proroguing Parliament when the WE scandal was at its hottest: he snuffed out its momentum and gave people time to forget, knowing that the issue will seem less pressing when it resurfaces compared to the new and acute crises of the day. It’s very smart, and very scummy politics. And generally speaking, it works.
There are good arguments to be made that continued work on WE is just as important, and can be completed contemporaneously, with federal action on COVID-19. After all, the government’s bungling on the file deprived student volunteers of promised funds during a pandemic, and the curious redactions of files disclosed in late August raise questions about whether the public yet has the full story on what exactly happened between WE Charity and the federal government. Canadians ought to know everything about how this charity, which has since closed up operations in Canada, landed a no-competition deal worth $43.5-million to administer a $912-million program (though the written agreement was just for $543.5-million, raising other questions), despite ties to the Trudeau and Morneau families, and despite a history of rather bizarre operational tactics.
These questions deserve answers – and we might even get them – but the Liberals know much of the public’s interest, attention and focus has moved on to other matters in the elapsed time between the whirlwind of WE news over the summer and now. And that was exactly the point of Mr. Trudeau’s summertime prorogation: to press the “reset” button on a festering political scandal, and to chart a new course for his party.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.