Like the astute politician he is, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre thought he’d make a headline by calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to testify before a Commons committee about the aborted plan to have WE Charity manage $900-million in student grants.
But let’s not forget the star witness: the civil servant who came up with the whole idea.
Mr. Trudeau, after all, has told us the plan to reward student volunteers with grants of $1,000 to $5,000, and put WE Charity in charge of the entire $900-million project, was recommended by the non-partisan public service.
And so the Prime Minister has thus told us that somewhere in Ottawa there is someone who can give the kind of revealing testimony Parliament doesn’t often hear: a senior bureaucrat explaining why they proposed this billion-dollar program, and insisted the only way to pull it off was to hand administration of the whole thing to a charity that had never done such a thing before.
Who knows? Maybe the same civil servant can also explain the “open and transparent” process that was, according to Mr. Trudeau, used to award the arrangement to WE. That will take some doing, given there is no public record of any kind of open process, the government refuses to provide any, and anyone with a dictionary can understand that means the process was (and is) “secretive,” not “transparent.”
Certainly, we’re going to need more than Mr. Trudeau’s testimony. Someone has to explain his explanations.
We should want the Prime Minister to testify. He should explain if he ever considered that he and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, acting as spokespersons for WE might raise questions about the odd arrangement with the student grants program. Or that Mr. Trudeau’s mother, Margaret Trudeau, was paid about $250,000 to speak at WE events during Mr. Trudeau’s tenure as PM, and his brother, Alexandre Trudeau, was paid $32,000. Or that no one disclosed those payments when the arrangement with WE was announced.
But Mr. Trudeau isn’t likely to show up for the hearings. MPs don’t have to testify before Commons committees. Prime ministers don’t usually answer the opposition’s request to grill them at committee. Finance Minister Bill Morneau, also now called to testify because one of his daughters is a WE employee, doesn’t have to go either.
Mr. Poilievre’s call for the PM to testify will probably end up as a bit of political theatre. And that’s okay, as long as MPs realize they should actually accomplish something more than performance art.
There was only showmanship involved last week when the Conservative asked the RCMP to investigate. There are real questions about a potential conflict of interest here but the Tories don’t have any particular evidence to suggest there was a crime.
It is implausible to believe that Mr. Trudeau asked WE Charity to pay his mother $250,000 in speaking fees, promising that in return he would one day pay them via a $19.5-million contract for managing a massive program in a pandemic. But it’s not unreasonable that Mr. Trudeau heard the student-grant idea and thought it would be neat if his buddies at WE took it on.
Even the Liberal government’s latest defence of the arrangement suggests they still don’t understand the problem with that. “What is important to remember here is that this is about a charity supporting students,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement last week. But it wasn’t: It was about a government program, with public money, supporting students. The question that people started asking is how this charity became a part of it.
There are real questions for MPs to ask about that. Many of them are prompted by Mr. Trudeau’s own explanations.
The opposition’s demands for papers related to the program, and for officials to testify, should lead to the civil servants who, according to Mr. Trudeau, came up with the idea, and recommended that only WE could pull off this massive government project. It should be able to show us the “open” process for choosing WE that somehow has remained a secret.
The Prime Minister, after all, has told us those things are there to be found.
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