The opposition parties are hoping to bring the WE Charity controversy back into focus with the resumption of key House of Commons committees this week.
Studies on the matter were silenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to prorogue Parliament in August and, since the return to the House of Commons last week, the Liberals haven’t shown an interest in resuming the probes. But the opposition parties say they plan to put the issue back in the spotlight after it’s been on the back burner amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and shuttered committees.
However, the next phase of investigations into the $543.5-million Canada Student Service Grant program – the administration of which was awarded to WE in June before the contract was cancelled amid conflict of interest claims – could look different. In the past few months, five different House of Commons committees have had the issue on their agendas.
The NDP says it wants to pare that down.
“We don’t need five committees studying one scandal," NDP MP and ethics critic Charlie Angus said, adding it’s a “waste of our efforts.”
"I think we need to tie it together so we can move on to other issues.”
The Conservatives are also considering dropping some committee studies, but have not yet decided on their approach, a source said. The Globe and Mail is not releasing their name because they are not permitted to speak publicly about internal party discussions.
In the minority Parliament, if the Liberals don’t support a committee study, the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois would all have to agree in order to ensure a review at committee.
Mr. Angus said the issues still outstanding include receiving documents and records from WE Charity, which in September announced it is closing its Canadian operations. Details on the speaking fees that Mr. Trudeau’s family members received from WE also haven’t been submitted yet and, in August, The Globe reported that the documents the government had released so far were excessively redacted.
Prior to Parliament’s prorogation, three committees – finance, ethics and government operations – had all started probes and the official languages committee was beginning its own review. Last week, the Conservatives raised the issue at a fifth committee – procedure and House affairs – in connection to its study of the government’s reasons for prorogation. In the summer, the Liberals supported some of those studies. Since returning to the House though, they have evaded questions around the release of more documents, delayed a decision on the study at procedure and House affairs, and stayed mum on studies at other committees.
“The Conservatives are quite enthusiastic about this one issue. They can certainly continue to talk about the WE Charity and spin conspiracy theories. We are going to stay focused on delivering for Canadians,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in response to a question from Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre last week.
In response to whether the Liberals would support any committee studies, the House Leader’s office said the government is staying focused on the pandemic.
Last week, the Tories introduced a 15-part motion at the procedure and House affairs committee to call Mr. Trudeau and other ministers as witnesses and force the sweeping release of records related to the WE Charity controversy and allegations of improper lobbying by Robert Silver, the husband of Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff. The motion also asks for any records of the government discussing prorogation with WE Charity or Mr. Silver and requires an accounting of senior WE staff members' affiliation with all entities dating back to 2015. (On Sept. 23, the Ethics Commissioner dismissed conflict-of-interest charges against Mr. Silver but the office of the federal Lobbying Commissioner has said it is still reviewing Mr. Silver’s actions.)
Mr. Angus called the Tory motion an overreach and a “witch hunt" and said the NDP won’t support it without amendments.
Conservative Whip Blake Richards said the government’s prorogation and committee delays wouldn’t have happened “unless there’s something they’re trying to hide." Mr. Trudeau has said the prorogation was needed in order to launch a pandemic recovery plan.
The procedure and House affairs committee will meet Tuesday to debate the Conservative motion, and other committees will start meetings on Thursday. Each committee will decide for itself whether to restart its investigations into the government’s contract with WE.
Putting the spotlight back on the controversy is smart politics, according to Nik Nanos, the chief data scientist and founder of Nanos Research. “It’s been a winning strategy" for the opposition, he said, noting that focusing on the controversy “derailed any momentum that the Liberals built over the course of the pandemic.”
However, he added that the pandemic remains the top issue “hands down.” So while the WE controversy is damaging to the brand of the Liberals and the Prime Minister, Mr. Nanos said the Conservatives can’t focus on it to the exclusion of the health and economic crises brought on by the novel coronavirus.
Mr. Poilievre said his party will do both. “We should be able to expose Liberal corruption while putting forward plans to protect the lives and livelihoods of Canadians during a pandemic," he said.
Last week, Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said he wasn’t against the motion proposed by the Conservatives. The Bloc declined requests for further comment from The Globe.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.