Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s motivation for proroguing Parliament last summer in the midst of the WE Charity controversy was for political reasons, a parliamentary committee meeting heard on Jan. 28.
“The decision to prorogue … was purely for political reasons and not anything else,” said Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
“The reasons are crystal clear and we all know it. The prime minister prorogued Parliament in August of last year for one simple reason—to shut down the committees that were investigating the WE Charity scandal.”
Liberal, NDP, Bloc, and Conservative members participated in the meeting to explore whether the prorogation of Parliament was justifiable. Three experts presented their study of the prorogation and took questions from the MPs.
At the time Trudeau ordered the prorogation, which lasted from Aug. 18 to Sept. 23, several House committees were looking into the WE issue. Those all ended with the prorogation.
“Because of the WE Charity scandal, the government was facing very uncomfortable questions on a daily basis,” Lukiwski said. “The media was reporting on a daily basis about the WE Charity scandal, social media was ablaze with commentary about the political scandal, so the prime minister did what he thought he needed to do to avert a political crisis.”
Trudeau said at the time that the reason for the prorogation ahead of the throne speech on Sept. 23 was so the government could “reset the approach” due to unforeseen changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WE controversy revolved around the government’s decision to pay WE Charity $43.5 million to manage a grant program for student volunteers, despite the organization’s close ties to Trudeau and his family. Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau, who also had close ties to the charity, failed to recuse themselves from the decision.
Trudeau and his family members were paid by WE for speaking at some of its public events.
Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull said at the meeting that the government’s reason for the prorogue was similar to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s reason for suspending Parliament back in early 2010.
He quoted Harper’s spokesman Dimitri Soudas as reported by the Toronto Star, saying the decision to prorogue Parliament was to “engage with constituents, stakeholders, and businesses in order to listen to Canadians, identify priorities, and to set the next stage of our agenda.”
Turnbull asked the committee to consider that, given the “deep economic social impacts” that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Canada and the world, it was reasonable for Trudeau to suspend Parliament in order to “recalibrate and reset the agenda.”
“Wouldn’t that make sense?” he said.
A government report issued at the end of October outlined the rationale for the prorogation in light of the pandemic, in order “to ensure that ours and future federal governments remain transparent with Canadians in all aspects of governance, including the use of prorogation.”
Lori Turnbull, an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, one of the experts who testified, said the report offers the Liberals’ justification that they made the decision to prorogue based on the “unprecedented and unanticipated circumstances facing the government at the time.”
“The global pandemic was both a public health and an economic crisis. The speech from the Throne that was delivered in December of 2019 did not and could not foresee the situation and therefore wasn’t was no longer useful or relevant as a plan for the future,” Turnbull said, referring to the content of the report.
Turnbull said the prorogation allowed the government to work on a new plan and provide a new speech from the Throne. She noted that the report didn’t cover the WE Charity controversy.
Bloc MP Alain Therrien said he didn’t see any difference in the government’s approach as a result of the prorogation.
“They said that they wanted to restart the situation, and when they prorogued Parliament, we thought that that would be a change in their policies, or their outlook, political outlook. … I didn’t feel that that was the case,” he said.
Lukiwski said the throne speech “was mainly fiscal in nature. … We didn’t need a throne speech for that. It didn’t fundamentally change the agenda of the government.”
“It was about shutting the WE scandal down,” NDP Ethics critic Charlie Angus said of the prorogation. He accused Trudeau of using the prorogation to obstruct investigations by both the Finance and Ethics committees, saying such actions demonstrate “a level of toxic disdain for democracy” and “thwart accountability.”
Lukiwski said the prime minister and several of his senior officials should testify before the committee and explain why Parliament was suspended.
“We need to be able to question them on their thinking behind prorogation,” he said. “We need them to answer questions.”
Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos said he wasn’t “sure why the Conservatives have tried to politicize this further.”