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Politics Liberals quash opposition effort to have ethics committee study SNC-Lavalin affair

Chair Bob Zimmer waits to begin a meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Parliament Hill on Aug. 21, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Liberal majority on a parliamentary committee has quashed an effort by opposition parties to further probe the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The House of Commons Ethics Committee, on which the governing Liberals hold the most seats, voted down a proposal to hear from federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion and other witnesses.

The Conservatives, supported by the NDP, had wanted Mr. Dion to explain findings from a report last week in which he said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had violated the federal conflict of interest law.

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Liberal members of a parliamentary committee have blocked an opposition attempt to hear from ethics commissioner Mario Dion about his scathing report into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The Canadian Press

The vote at the ethics committee on Wednesday was 5-4 against. Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith broke ranks to vote with the opposition, but only because he said he disagreed with key findings of the Dion report and wanted the Ethics Commissioner to “sit right there so he could answer questions about how he got this analysis so completely, completely wrong.”

Before the vote, the committee was told Mr. Dion was standing by ready to testify, by video link, if necessary.

In his report, the watchdog concluded that Mr. Trudeau improperly put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to intervene in the criminal case regarding Montreal construction and engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. Mr. Dion said Mr. Trudeau used his authority to press her to overrule a decision by the independent Director of Public Prosecutions not to negotiate an out-of court settlement with SNC-Lavalin that would avoid a criminal trial on bribery and fraud charges.

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Mr. Trudeau has said he disagrees with the commissioner’s conclusions and has refused to apologize for his actions.

Opposition MPs accused the Liberals of a cover-up, pointing out it’s common for officers of Parliament such as the Ethics Commissioner to appear before committees to discuss a report.

“We have to ask ourselves a simple question: What were the Liberals so frightened of that they shut down the Ethics Commissioner from presenting his report to our committee?” NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

“In all my years of Parliament, I have sat many years on the ethics committee, under the wild and woolly days of Stephen Harper, throughout the years of Justin Trudeau: I have never seen an effort to restrict the ability of an officer of Parliament from reporting to the ethics committee,” he said.

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Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, a former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada, attended the meeting and spoke for most Liberal MPs, even though he is not a regular member of the Ethics Committee.

He said most MPs with the governing party voted against the motion because they felt the Conservatives and the NDP are trying to milk the SNC-Lavalin controversy for political gain.

“What we saw in there was an awful lot of partisanship, an awful lot of speeches ... just playing process games and political games on the eve of an election,” Mr. McKinnon told reporters. He said the government has already pledged to adopt changes recommended by former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan.

He said the Commons justice committee conducted 13 hours of hearings on the matter and Mr. Dion had produced a 63-page report, both of which gave Canadians “a lot to digest.”

The shuttering of further Parliamentary hearings on the SNC-Lavalin affair means no televised airing of the controversy with the countdown to a federal campaign under way.

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The official campaign period for the election, slated for Oct. 21, is expected to begin by mid-September.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt pointed out that the Liberals on the justice committee in March shut down further hearings, saying they had confidence the Ethics Commissioner would fully investigate the matter. But, she said, Mr. Dion said last week that he could not conduct a full investigation because nine witnesses were prevented from sharing information because of cabinet confidentiality.

These nine people, who have not been identified, told Mr. Dion revealing their information would breach cabinet confidence. The Privy Council, the bureaucratic agency that serves the Prime Minister’s Office, declined Mr. Dion’s request to waive cabinet confidence, which usually refers to information that would reveal deliberations of cabinet.

Ms. Raitt said Mr. Trudeau could have waived cabinet confidentiality restrictions for those witnesses. She said Canadians deserve to know what those nine witnesses could have offered.

The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that Mr. Trudeau’s office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin. Mr. Trudeau called the story “false.” The ensuing controversy led to the resignations of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott as well as the departure of the Prime Minister’s principal secretary Gerald Butts and the retirement of former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick. Mr. Trudeau later expelled Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott from the Liberal caucus.

Liberal MPs on the Ethics Committee also voted down a second motion calling for Mr. Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and senior Liberal government aide Ben Chin to explain their roles in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

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