It was hard not to feel sympathy for Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a politician visibly struggling to maintain principles despite being a Liberal MP on the Commons ethics committee during a vote on the SNC-Lavalin affair.
He was the one, among the six Liberal MPs on the committee, who had voted a month ago for a public inquiry, arguing for transparency. The vice-chair of the ethics committee, many suspected, might have a hard time voting to prevent former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould from testifying. So on Tuesday, he was the chosen spokesman when the Liberals rejected it.
The other five Liberal MPs on the committee made it through Tuesday’s meeting without saying anything but the word “no” – twice each, when they voted.
Afterward, they left it up to poor Mr. Erskine-Smith to explain this embarrassing thing. Liberal MPs and ministers that spent the weekend saying Ms. Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott could walk into the House of Commons any time and say their piece – demanding they “put up or shut up.” Then Liberals on the ethics committee voted not to hear them.
Mr. Erskine-Smith’s main reason – the Liberals’ reason – for rejecting an opposition motion to call Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott to testify, by the way, was that it would be “premature,” because Ms. Wilson-Raybould still plans to send some written submissions to the justice committee.
That’s a pretty flimsy procedural rationalization. More on that later.
But it was almost painful to see the one Liberal MP on the committee willing to explain himself, Mr. Erskine-Smith, try to square the circle. He still asserted that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott should tell all of their story. And he disagreed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a key point.
Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet had issued a waiver releasing Ms. Wilson-Raybould from solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality so she could testify before the justice committee about events that occurred when she was attorney-general. But Ms. Wilson-Raybould indicated she wants to speak about the period after she was shuffled out of that job on Jan. 14 and until she quit the cabinet on Feb. 12. Mr. Trudeau has refused to extend the waiver.
Mr. Erskine-Smith told reporters that the waiver should be extended.
Those five other Liberal MPs wouldn’t offer an opinion. Michel Picard, the MP for Montarville, said solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ottawa MP Mona Fortier shook her head and looked terrified. MPs Raj Saini, David de Burgh Graham and Stéphane Lauzon scurried away from the microphone.
At 34, Mr. Erskine-Smith is one of the younger Liberal MPs, but he has been willing to break ranks. He is a liberal Liberal, a lawyer with an Oxford education who was keen on legalizing cannabis and sympathetic to banning handguns, and also an idealist who has argued against rigid party lines.
No doubt he wanted to stick with his party this time. But it took a bit of rationalization.
He argued that since Ms. Wilson-Raybould intends to send further written submissions, including requested documents, to the Commons justice committee, the ethics committee should wait to see her submissions and how the justice committee responds.
In a run-of-the-mill case, that might make sense. But the justice committee has already been short-circuited by Mr. Erskine-Smith’s Liberal colleagues. They rejected a move to have Ms. Wilson-Raybould appear a second time, and voted to end their hearings. It’s absurd to wait for committee that has closed up shop.
Mr. Erskine-Smith also said Ms. Wilson-Raybould could not really testify before the ethics committee because the waiver of privilege issue by the government only applied to the justice committee. But of course, Liberal MPs could ask the PM to extend it.
And Mr. Erskine-Smith suggested the committee could ask Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to testify about whether he has the mandate to properly investigate. But last month, Mr. Erskine-Smith expressed the view that he does not. To his credit, he didn’t dodge questions from reporters about that.
But in the end, it was another day when the Liberals seemed to be contradicting the thing they said a couple of days ago, or a couple of weeks ago. It’s spreading, too. Every day, Mr. Trudeau is asked if he’s preventing his former ministers from speaking and now his MPs have to struggle with it, too.