Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his bid Wednesday to quash an “anti-corruption” committee on the government’s ethical controversies by threatening the opposition with a snap election.
NDP, Green and two independent MPs voted with the Liberals to defeat a Conservative motion to create the committee – ending a three-day standoff over a motion that would have given the opposition more control over the House of Commons agenda and restart a study of the WE controversy.
The minority Liberals resisted the opposition’s push and made a vote on the motion a matter of confidence, which would have triggered an election. The government succeeded in getting enough opposition parties to back down without giving up any concessions.
However, the issue is not yet over. The NDP said it will try to jumpstart studies at the ethics committee on the WE controversy and several other issues that the opposition has raised related to the Liberal government and lobbying. Several committee studies into the WE controversy were ended as a result of the government’s decision to prorogue Parliament in August, and the parties have not yet agreed on how reviews of the issue will be revived.
Before the vote, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh criticized the Liberals for their election threat, but ended up siding with Mr. Trudeau later that afternoon. Still, the NDP insisted it did not acquiesce to the Liberals.
“New Democrats will not give Prime Minister Trudeau the election he’s looking for,” Mr. Singh told reporters just hours before the vote.
“While Prime Minister Trudeau is talking about an election, regular people, people in communities are worried about their kids in school, are worried about their loved ones in long-term care homes.”
The Conservative motion was defeated 180 to 146, with Bloc Québécois MPs supporting the Tories.
Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez confirmed that his party had discussions with the other parties, but “there were no concessions” and the government will move ahead with its own proposal to create a special committee to study COVID-19 spending, chaired by the Liberals. They would need Conservative, NDP or the Bloc support for that to go ahead.
“Parliament chose Canadians over politics,” Mr. Rodriguez told reporters after the vote. “I think there was a general consent that the Conservative motion was totally abusive, it was paralyzing government.”
Bloc House Leader Alain Therrien ridiculed the NDP’s decision to vote with the Liberals, calling the NDP a “chien de poche,” or lapdog, to the Liberal government.
“I’m very impressed by the docility of this party,” he said.
Mr. Therrien said the Bloc will continue its efforts to find out what the government is trying to hide as part of what he called the “immense scandal” related to WE Charity. It remains unclear, though, how the Bloc or NDP will be able to start their studies. Since Parliament resumed, the Liberals have filibustered the committees trying to revive the probes.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal government overreacted to his party’s motion.
“His designation of this vote as a confidence vote shows that he’s willing to put the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Party ahead of the health, safety and well-being of Canadians,” he said.
Mr. O’Toole did not criticize the NDP Leader’s decision and said the Conservatives remain willing to work with other parties. His deputy leader, Candice Bergen, said the New Democrats were in a “very difficult position.”
“They’re not ready for an election and it was just, I think, very difficult for them. So they’re going to have to grapple with that,” she said.
Election readiness likely factored into the NDP’s decision to vote against the Conservatives, Nanos Research founder Nik Nanos said. He said the Liberals and the Conservatives are the two parties ready for a campaign. “I think the NDP will have the most difficult path in the coming election,” Mr. Nanos said, adding that the polls don’t favour Mr. Singh’s party.
“We’ve seen in the past four weeks actually movement away from the New Democrats to the Liberals,” he said.
During Question Period on Wednesday, Conservatives asked the Prime Minister repeatedly if he had consulted with federal health experts on the potential risks of an election. Mr. Trudeau did not address the questions, but said the Liberals “don’t want an election.”
“Canadians need to know that their Parliament continues to work constructively. It doesn’t mean we need to agree on everything,” he said.
The Conservative motion that set the ball rolling on the high-stakes political debate had proposed the creation of a committee to study issues that include WE’s now-cancelled contract to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, the emergency commercial rent program, and reports that Robert Silver (husband of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff) lobbied the government over a wage subsidy program for employers.
The Liberals said the Conservative motion would redirect government resources from pandemic response to document production and eat up cabinet ministers' time. Unlike the 26 other House of Commons committees that call senior civil servants and ministers to testify, the Liberals said this one would “paralyze” Parliament because it would have the power to “force” cabinet ministers to appear.
The Conservative motion would have also given MPs sweeping access to documents that are normally kept secret, under the Access to Information Act. The Liberals agreed to waive that exemption when they released heavily redacted documents in the summer.
The Conservative motion called on the government to hand over unredacted versions of those documents and for records from the Speakers' Spotlight agency related to the speaking engagements of the Prime Minister and his family dating back to October, 2008. The Official Opposition also wanted access to records from the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office, related to the government’s decision to prorogue and between the government and Mr. Silver.
The federal Lobbying Commissioner is reviewing reports that Mr. Silver contacted senior Liberal staff on behalf of his employer’s efforts to seek changes to the federal wage subsidy program. He is not currently registered to lobby the federal government.
In September, federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion dismissed a Conservative Party request to investigate the matter.
With a report from Janice Dickson in Ottawa