It took a few takes for Justin Trudeau to get to mea culpa.
Ten days before, as the WE Charity deal was cancelled, the whole debacle was, in Mr. Trudeau’s telling, an unfortunate thing that happened to him, rather than something he did.
On Monday, this was Mr. Trudeau’s mistake. It was on him. He should have known his ties to WE, and his family’s ties, made it all too close, he said. He should have stayed out of the discussions about having WE manage a $900-million student-grant program. Now he’s kicking himself that his mistake hurt students by delaying the grant program.
Admitting mistakes is a big step. The last time Mr. Trudeau was embroiled in an ethical controversy, in the SNC-Lavalin affair, he started out with denial and never really accepted a mistake – when doing so would have almost certainly prevented a lot of political damage. So this is progress.
Mr. Trudeau has, in essence, admitted he was in a conflict of interest.
That takes a lot of the sting out of the controversy. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is investigating whether Mr. Trudeau was in a conflict, and Mr. Trudeau has already said he was.
The PM has taken responsibility. But there are still two other things to come: transparency and accountability.
He took responsibility a few days after it became known that his mother, Margaret Trudeau, was paid $250,000 for speaking at WE events. The PM’s brother Alexandre Trudeau was paid $32,000. That, according to some MPs, was when ordinary folks really started talking about it.
Mr. Trudeau realized that he and his family really were too close to WE, and that he should never have been involved in the decision about this program – but only after it started to look obvious.
Politically, there was nowhere else to go. Saying sorry, admitting a mistake, accepting responsibility – all those things will help deflect the flak.
Still, it’s not hard to believe that Mr. Trudeau really is kicking himself for screwing up the grant program for students, or, as he said at his news conference on Monday, for dragging his mother into the controversy.
He offered a reasonable justification: The government was rushing out pandemic programs in new ways and was bound to make mistakes. (Who knew it would be a face-plant by the PM himself, in a deal with a charity, with a conflict involving his mom?)
But responsibility is step one. We’re 18 days into the questions about WE, and we are still owed some answers. You can’t take responsibility without coming clean about what happened.
For starters, the written contribution agreement that would have seen WE get $19.5-million to manage the program is still being kept secret. That document doesn’t belong to Mr. Trudeau, or WE, or the civil servants who guard it. It belongs to the public. A prime minister can’t really take responsibility for overstepping on a contract that is still being withheld from the public.
After he insisted that public servants came up with the idea of having WE manage this program, we should be expecting the details of that assessment, too. The government has refused to answer a lot of questions about how this deal was supposed to work.
Even Mr. Trudeau’s answer on Monday to the question of whether he knew his mother and brother had been paid by WE was unsatisfyingly vague and scripted – essentially, that he should have known.
Mr. Trudeau’s apology seems designed to put an end to all the questions. Opposition MPs have been gearing up to use their power in a minority Parliament to demand documents and hold hearings. But the Prime Minister’s belated mea culpa can’t be a shield from accountability.
The good news for Mr. Trudeau is that an apology, and admitting a mistake, really is powerful. If a public airing shows the problem with this WE deal was just that Mr. Trudeau’s family ties were too close to it, then most people will accept the PM’s apology.
The bad news is that it’s too late to stop the questions. If Mr. Trudeau wanted to do that, he had to get the mea culpa right on the first take.
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