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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government’s now-cancelled plan to have the WE Charity administer the Canada Student Service Grant, saying the charity received no preferential treatment and was recommended by the public service. Trudeau made a rare appearance for a sitting prime minister before a parliamentary committee Thursday. The Globe and Mail

You had one job.

For the past four and a half months, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has had one big, overarching, all-consuming job: fight COVID-19. Everything else is a sideshow.

On balance, the government has earned decent marks for its work, particularly when graded on the curve against the shambolic administration of that country next door.

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When the pandemic landed, Ottawa shut the border. It should have acted sooner; even today, it should be doing more to screen travellers, but its actions were instrumental in stemming the importation of the virus.

When the deepest recession since the Great Depression took hold, Ottawa recognized it had to pump money into the hands of Canadians. In short order, it created a number of programs, led by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, to send payments to those who would have fallen through the cracks.

Health and public health – testing, contact tracing, protecting vulnerable seniors’ residences and running hospitals – are almost entirely in the hands of the provinces. That’s Confederation. As a result, current debates over everything from the wisdom of reopening bars, to rules about masks, to the details of school reopenings are all provincial matters.

So these past four and a half months, the Trudeau government has really only been responsible for half the nation’s One Big Job. Its role has been, mostly, to write cheques to Canadians and to lower orders of government. That, and providing moral leadership.

The Trudeau government deserves at least a passing grade for its performance. But along the way, it got distracted.

It’s still not clear how, when, where, why or by whom a plan was created to put the Kielburger brothers in charge of a half-billion-dollar program.

Read the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford’s opening remarks as she testifies on WE Charity

Even putting aside questions about the WE organization, and its financial ties to Mr. Trudeau’s family and Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s family, the Canada Student Service Grant’s hybrid of volunteering and low-wage work should have raised questions.

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But it was the government’s lack of due diligence, into WE and above all into itself, that has given birth to yet another ethical scandal. The scandal, and the response, reveals some abiding problems.

On Thursday, appearing before a House of Commons committee, Mr. Trudeau put the blame – or as he tried to play it, the credit – for the CSSG and the awarding of its management to WE entirely on the apolitical public service. He thanked these selfless bureaucrats, whom he deeply respects, for all the wonderful work they’ve done during the pandemic – including allegedly telling him he had no choice but to put the program in WE’s hands.

Remember back in 1984, when an embattled Liberal prime minister, in a sound bite for the ages, defended a slew of malodorous patronage decisions? His immortal words were: “I had no option.”

On Thursday, that was Mr. Trudeau’s line of defence: He and the cabinet had no choice. The public service told him the only organization – the only one – that could run the CSSG program was WE. So Mr. Trudeau and cabinet didn’t choose WE. No, no, no. He simply chose to go ahead with the CSSG, whose existence the public service had decided was 100-per-cent contingent on putting WE in charge.

Right.

As for how nobody noticed that the PM’s mother had received nearly half-a-million dollars from WE, or how nobody thought it material that Mr. Trudeau’s wife is busy voluntouring for WE – well, it was a pandemic. Everyone had to move quickly. There was no other way.

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The set-up of the PM’s appearance before the Parliamentary committee, with opposition MPs given just a few minutes each to ask questions, which Mr. Trudeau was free to answer or ignore, before moving on to obsequious non-questions from his Liberal member-minions, was designed to deliver nothing.

Which it did. No wonder the PM was happy to attend.

Mr. Trudeau was not contrite. Instead, he was often combative – outraged, even – as if he were the aggrieved party in this affair. He had, after all, just wanted to help the children. If you dimmed the screen and listened only to the audio, he sounded like one of the Kielburgers.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre pressed the Prime Minister over and over for a specific dollar amount for the Trudeau family's WE Charity expenses, then took charge of the House finance committee meeting when a power outage cut off chairman Wayne Easter. The Globe and Mail

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