When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau testified that he wasn’t at the origin of WE’s involvement in a big government program, he glossed over one key thing: He was the only person who could have ended it.
Mr. Trudeau’s own telling, and the testimony of officials, doesn’t just point to a rushed, pandemic-crisis program from which he should have stepped away at the end, by recusing himself from cabinet’s decision. He set a half-baked program rolling, and failed to stop it when no one else could.
The Prime Minister’s testimony amounts to an assertion that what happened with WE wasn’t corrupt, but the only other conclusion is that it was incompetent. That is all on Mr. Trudeau.
Of course, the bottom-line question in the WE controversy is whether the PM did something actually corrupt – whether he steered a big deal to run a government program to WE Charity despite his family’s ties to the organization, and the fact that WE had paid his mother and brother sizable speaker’s fees.
When Mr. Trudeau testified Thursday that he was not even aware of the proposal to involve WE Charity until May 8 – after officials had worked out most of the details of an arrangement with the charity – it was a timeline that would rule out the notion that he cooked up the idea to involve WE.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t satisfy all. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he doesn’t buy it. But the I-didn’t-know assertion is now the linchpin of the PM’s defence, so if there is ever evidence to show it isn’t true, it might spell the end of Mr. Trudeau’s tenure.
But if we take Mr. Trudeau’s testimony on its face, it still leads to a major misjudgment – and not only about recusal.
The way Mr. Trudeau talked about his own power was striking. His suggestion that he “pushed back” when civil servants suggested WE Charity run the program was aimed at reinforcing the notion that WE’s involvement wasn’t his idea. But of course, if he wanted to kill the whole program, he could have.
When the program was eventually approved by cabinet on May 22, he wasn’t just a minister. There’s a common misconception that cabinet would have voted, and Mr. Trudeau would cast a ballot. But cabinet doesn’t usually vote; it decides collectively, and ministers rarely block a PM’s initiative.
It was the Prime Minister who had set the Canada Student Service Grant rolling like a downhill train. He had publicly announced it on April 22, without really knowing how it would work. And once the PM announced it, government officials weren’t asking whether it was a good idea; their task was just to pull it off.
Only the PM could stop it. But he didn’t. Not when, according to his own testimony, he realized that his family ties to WE would raise questions. And not when he learned that the program had morphed from an expansion of the government-run Canada Service Corps to an outsourced recruitment drive that would hastily whip up volunteering positions.
Michelle Kovacevic, an assistant deputy minister at Finance Canada, testified that civil servants tried to deliver the program through the Canada Service Corps, but it could only handle an expansion from 1,800 to 15,000 spots. The government wanted bigger numbers. Officials considered asking students to volunteer to do coronavirus contact tracing, but Health Canada already had a large pool of volunteers, and wasn’t sure what to do with them all.
At this point, the government might have decided that it wasn’t feasible to get 100,000 or 200,000 volunteers going in a couple of months. It could have settled for smaller numbers. It could have put the money into other programs to aid students, such as the existing student jobs program, or expanded bursaries. But that wouldn’t be what the PM had announced.
According to the PM’s testimony, civil servants came back with two options: have WE recruit volunteers (paying $435 to $1,000 to WE while each student received $1,000 to $5,000) or there would be no program.
It should have been a red flag that what Mr. Trudeau promised April 22 wasn’t really feasible – and the concerns about his family ties should have made that a flashing red light.
Mr Trudeau didn’t heed it, but only he had the power to backtrack on his announcement.
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