OTTAWA — The Prime Minister's Office says it is ultimately up to a group of six Liberal MPs to decide whether Justin Trudeau will be subjected to intense questioning from opposition MPs over his visits to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested he's not keen on testifying before the ethics committee. Speaking to CBC Radio's "Information Morning" in Halifax, Trudeau said: "We have an ethics commissioner [who] is above partisan politics to make rulings and to look into things — to help Canadians separate the partisan attacks and mudslinging and the politics from what actually happened.
"I'm happy to work with the ethics commissioner," he said, in response to whether he would appear at committee. "I think keeping politics and partisan attacks to the side on this is what Canadians expect."
Last month, outgoing Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson released a damning report finding Trudeau had broken four parts of the Conflict of Interest Act by accepting gifts of hospitality while the Aga Khan and his foundation were registered to lobby the PMO. Not only had Trudeau and his family accepted free vacations, as well as private charter and helicopter rides, but the prime minister had also failed to recuse himself from discussions that could further the Aga Khan Foundation's private interests, Dawson said.
Trudeau has long insisted that he and the Aga Khan enjoy a close family friendship that dates back to his childhood and the relationship his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had with the multimillionaire. The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims, also described having a "personal relationship" with Trudeau and his family. But Dawson said she didn't believe the two were actually family friends. She noted that their correspondence had picked up only recently, after Trudeau became Liberal leader.
Dawson's bombshell report — Trudeau is the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law, according to the Library of Parliament — was released a week after MPs had left Ottawa for the Christmas break.
Denied the opportunity to question the prime minister in the House, Conservative MP Peter Kent wrote to MP Bob Zimmer, the chair of the Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, last week requesting an extraordinary meeting Tuesday to discuss calling the prime minister to testify.
"I believe the findings in The Trudeau Report clearly warrant the extension of such an invitation to the Prime Minister," Kent wrote, requesting that the prime minister show up next week, on Jan. 17 or 18, before his scheduled trip to Davos, Switzerland.
Cameron Ahmad, the prime minister's spokesman, would not say Monday whether Trudeau planned to testify or would welcome the opportunity to answer MPs' questions arising from Dawson's report.
PM spokesman says committees are independent
The decision would be up to the Liberal MPs at Tuesday's meeting to decide, he said, insisting there would be no direction from the PMO.
"There is an independent committee with independent members. They are going to make their decision, and we'll see how that unfolds," he told HuffPost Canada.
"We respect the independence of committees, we respect the work that they do, and we respect the decisions that all parliamentarians, including in our own party, make," he said.
Ahmad stressed, however, that Trudeau had already taken 15-minutes worth of questions from the media an hour after the report's release, and would answer any question on this posed to him during his upcoming cross-country tour.
"And he is looking forward to talking about jobs and the economy and how we grow the middle class in this country," Ahmad added.
The prime minister begins a six-stop tour in Sackville, N.S., Tuesday evening. He is then off to Hamilton and London, Ont., on Wednesday and Thursday, and Quebec City on Jan. 18. Two more stops, in Winnipeg and Edmonton, are planned for the end of the month. The House of Commons is scheduled to resume on Jan. 29.
"Liberal members of the committee should take that as a liberating sign!" Kent told HuffPost.
Because of the "unprecedented and historic decision of a prime minister being found in violation of a clearly defined set of rules and regulations and codes," Kent said, it was "a reasonable request" and "a great opportunity for the prime minister to come forward and close the book on a number of issues that are still not really resolved.
"There is a wealth of material for, I think, fair, and logical, and civil questions about the way the prime minister conducts himself, and the way the PMO conducts itself," Kent added. "It is an opportunity for the prime minister to discuss what he perhaps wasn't really very well prepared to do in the scrum in the lobby in December."
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The Toronto MP said he hoped the majority Liberals on the committee — there are six Grit voting members and three opposition MPs in addition to the Tory chair — would respond "positively."
"I'm quite sure they have many of the same questions that we on the opposition side have."
Kent noted that so far the committee has operated with "collegiality and respect," and he said he was encouraged by the Liberal MPs' agreeing last fall to call Finance Minister Bill Morneau to testify during a study on the Conflict of Interest Act.
Faced with an NDP motion calling on the finance minister to appear before the committee, the Grits actually amended the motion to delete Morneau's invitation and focus instead on a general study of the Act.
None of the Liberal MPs voting Tuesday responded to HuffPost's request for a comment.
Calls to MPs Mona Fortier, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, and Raj Saini went unanswered. The offices of Emmanuel Dubourg and Frank Baylis responded only to say that their MP was unable to attend the meeting. Baylis' staff said the boss was in Barbados and would be replaced by another Grit.
Lobbying watchdog looking at new complaint
The ethics committee is expected to vote on calling Trudeau to testify on Tuesday. On Wednesday, its MPs are scheduled to hear directly from Dawson on her report.
Meanwhile, the office of the new lobbying commissioner, Nancy Bélanger, confirmed that a preliminary assessment is being made into a new complaint that the Aga Khan violated the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct by giving free holidays to Trudeau as well as to Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan, who accompanied the prime minister on his 2016 Christmas trip.
Former lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd had previously ruled out a formal investigation in September. But Manon Dion, a spokeswoman for the office told HuffPost that a "commissioner can open or reopen files at any given time, based on information available." Democracy Watch sent a new complaint following the release of Dawson's report on Dec. 20.