Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ducked the same query nearly 20 times in the House of Commons Wednesday — while trying to showcase what it might be like if one question period a week was dedicated entirely to his answers.
Trudeau used many of the same words to stonewall opposition MPs repeatedly asking how many times he’s met with the federal ethics commissioner. The watchdog is probing his New Year’s vacation to the Aga Khan’s island in the Bahamas, including the use of a private helicopter.
For months, Trudeau has responded to inquiries about the investigation by saying he is “happy to answer” whatever questions the ethics commissioner has for him. The government even used that response in an order paper question from a Conservative MP.
But in question period, Tories — and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair — tried to get a new answer to what they’ve dubbed a simple question. Trudeau, who has recently been fielding all queries on Wednesdays to promote his proposed “prime minister’s question period,” brushed them off.
Quebec MP Jacques Gourde started by asking in French: “How many times has the prime minister met the ethics and conflict of interest commissioner to discuss his elastic version of ethics?”
Trudeau responded that he was “perfectly pleased” to answer any questions the commissioner might have for him.
Unsatisfied, Gourde asked again and received a near-identical answer from Trudeau.
It's possible the prime minister has chosen not to answer because he has been asked not to talk about the probe by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson.
Margot Booth, spokesperson for Dawson’s office, told HuffPost Canada in an email that “the subject of an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act or any inquiry under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons is asked to keep any information related to it confidential.” Trudeau is being investigated for possibly violating the code and the act.
Regardless, the Conservatives kept hammering.
“I will repeat the question in English because the question is not if he is happy or satisfied or feeling good about meeting the ethics commissioner,” Tory House Leader Candice Bergen said. “Has the prime minister met with the commissioner and if so, how many times? Very simple.”
“Mr. Speaker, I’m pleased to work with the ethics commissioner and conflict of interest commissioner to answer any questions she may have,” Trudeau said. “That’s what Canadians expect of the prime minister and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“You’re a joke, Justin,” a Tory MP shouted. “You’re a joke.”
House Speaker Geoff Regan asked Alberta MP Blake Richards — identified by at least one journalist as the heckler — to cool it.
Bergen advised Trudeau to provide a clear answer, lest any Canadians think he has something to hide. Again, Trudeau told the House he was “very happy” to meet with the watchdog.
'How many times, how many times, how many times...'
Ontario MP John Brassard tried a new tack in order to cut to the chase.
“For the sake of my colleagues, I’ll ask it again. How many times, how many times, how many times, how many times, how many times, and how many times has he met with the ethics commissioner?” Brassard said.
“When asked the same question, I will give the same answer,” Trudeau shot back. “I will work with and answer the questions that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner may have.”
Mulcair then decided to give an assist to the Tories, saying the prime minister should prove he believes in transparency and the importance of question period by giving a “basic” answer.
'Answer the question': Mulcair
“He is being investigated by the ethics commissioner. How many times has the prime minister communicated with the ethics commissioner? Answer the question,” Mulcair said.
Again, Trudeau said he’ll give the same answer to the same questions, and pointedly noted he was interested in taking questions from all MPs in the House, not just party leaders.
“I’m happy to work with the ethics commissioner on any questions she may have.”
Some Tories got creative with their approaches. For instance, Quebec MP Alain Rayes, a former teacher, said Trudeau sounded like a child who was happy to see the principal but was unwilling to say how many times.
“Zero times? One? Two? Three? I know it’s below five. The question’s a simple one,” Rayes said. “Is it zero or one? I get the impression the answer is probably zero.”
"When asked the same question, I will give the same answer."
— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Trudeau, again, said he was pleased to sit down with the ethics and conflict of interest commissioner.
B.C. MP Cathy McLeod tried a multiple choice question, asking if Trudeau had met with the ethics watchdog: a) zero times, b) one to five times, or c) six to 10.
“I am happy to work with the ethics commissioner on any questions that she might have,” Trudeau responded, before noting how his government is investing in infrastructure and lowering taxes for the middle class.
Alberta MP Michelle Rempel tried quoting French writer André Malraux, who said: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”
She urged Trudeau to “stop hiding” and “show Canadians what he is actually made of” by answering the question of the day.
“I am happy to work with the ethics commissioner to answer any questions she may have,” he said. Again, the prime minister listed off what he deems the main achievements of his government.
The whole episode evidently irked the prime minister’s senior adviser, Gerald Butts, who tweeted that Mulcair joining the Tories to attack Trudeau felt a lot like the 2015 campaign.
MPs “from all over Canada finally get a chance to ask the prime minister a question,” and were asking only about his vacation, Butts wrote.
By convention, the prime minister typically only answers questions from other party leaders during question period. There is nothing to stop a prime minister, however, from answering the questions of other members, at any time.
With files from Althia Raj
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