Election Narrowly Averted as Liberals Spar With Opposition Over Ethics Probe

October 21, 2020 Updated: October 21, 2020

Just one year after Canadians last headed to the polls, another election was avoided as the NDP voted with the Liberal government against a Tory motion that the Liberals had set as a confidence vote.

The prospect of a snap election amid the second wave of the pandemic loomed this week as the Liberals and Conservatives sparred over the Tory’s push to create a special “anticorruption” committee that would scrutinize WE Charity and other pandemic relief programs the Conservatives flagged as being carried out unethically

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 21, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

The opposition motion would have given the proposed committee broad powers to call witnesses, including the prime minister and other ministers, and to demand documents on a range of issues, such as speaking fees paid to Trudeau’s family members by WE Charity in recent years. The committee would also delve into deals the Conservative allege favoured Liberal friends, such as the contract given to former Liberal MP Frank Baylis’ company for ventilators not yet approved by Health Canada. 

The Liberals vowed to make the motion a confidence matter, saying that if the opposition parties unite to pass it, that effectively means the House of Commons has lost faith in the government, which would trigger an election.

That election failed to come to fruition on Oct. 21, with the NDP, Greens, and two Independent MPs voting against the Tory motion, while the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois voted in favour.

Swords Drawn Over Committee’s Scope 

Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez called the Conservative motion a “blatantly partisan proposal” that would “paralyze the government,” compelling everyone from the prime minister to rank-and-file civil servants to testify, and snarl the work of the government at a time when everyone ought to be focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 21, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Given that a number of committees had been looking into the controversies, including the WE Charity affair, before Trudeau prorogued Parliament this summer, the Conservatives argued that creating a focused committee would free up those other committees and allow them to refocus on other issues.

The Liberals unsuccessfully countered the Tory motion with a proposal for a committee with a narrower mandate to review federal COVID-19 program spending. Their version would include six Liberal MPs and six members of the opposition parties. The Tories’ version would have 15 MPs, with the opposition holding the majority.

All four parties insisted that none of them wanted an election, but the Liberals said the Tories have left them no choice, while the Tories and Bloc Quebecois laid the fault at the government’s feet.

Several parliamentary committees had been probing the WE Charity deal before the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August. The program was immediately engulfed in controversy over the fact that WE Charity, an organization that Trudeau and his family members had long been involved with, was given a $43.5 million contract to administer a pandemic relief program for students.

In recent months, the Tories, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois have also all raised concerns that the Liberals are trying to avoid extensive scrutiny of contracts and programs set up to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition have alleged that the decision to prorogue Parliament in August was to shut down the work of existing committees probing WE Charity. Efforts to resume their work last month have been stymied by the Liberals’ decision to filibuster committees where they have control.

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

New Docs Reveal Payments to Trudeau’s Family

More light was shed on the interaction between WE Charity and the government on Oct. 19 with the release of dozens of pages of documents previously demanded by the Finance Committee. They include details of fees paid to, and expenses covered for, members of the Trudeau family who participated in WE events.

According to the documents, the PM’s family members received over $427,000 combined from WE Charity in the form of speaking fees, amenities, and gifts.

The charity had previously said Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife, had been paid a $1,500 speaking fee for one appearance. The documents released Oct. 19 also disclosed that the charity covered $23,940.76 in expenses for eight appearances between February 2012 and March 2020.

Trudeau released details of his own on Oct. 19, showing that he received about $1.3 million in speaking fees for 125 engagements between January 2006 and June 2012, figures and details that had already been previously disclosed when he ran for leadership of the Liberal party in 2013.

Third Committee Filibustered

In addition to holding up investigations in the finance and ethics committees through filibusters, opposition MPs have also accused the Liberals of hampering their efforts to investigate the government’s pandemic response.

Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP and shadow minister for health, said the Liberals are stymying a motion she put forward in the Health Committee on Oct. 16 that would look into the government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Rempel said in a release that the committee received an email from fellow committee member and Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski with instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, “telling Liberals to move the committee meeting behind closed doors,” and to “block committee members from getting key documents” including those that show why the early pandemic warning system was shut down and decisions surrounding the procurement of medical protective equipment and access to rapid testing in Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press