01/09/2018 22:42 EST | Updated 01/10/2018 11:03 EST

Liberals Save Trudeau From Ethics Grilling By Acting Like Conservatives

At least the meeting wasn't held behind closed doors this time.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Former prime minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk together during a ceremony on Oct. 22, 2015 at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Four years ago, the difference was that the meeting was held behind closed doors.

Back in May, 2013, the opposition was similarly outraged. "We are talking about the most senior officials of the Government of Canada," Scott Andrews, the lone Liberal MP on the standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, was saying. "There are many unanswered questions, and it's up to this committee to get answers for Canadians."

Andrews was trying to get prime minister Stephen Harper to testify at the ethics committee over his office's handling of the Mike Duffy affair. Andrews wanted to hear from Harper; his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright; PMO lawyer Benjamin Perrin, and Principal Secretary Ray Novak. His list also included senators Duffy, David Tkachuk and Marjory LeBreton.

This was "critically important" stuff, Andrews was telling the committee, then dominated by Conservative MPs.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson prepares to appear at a House of Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 10, 2014.

"The conduct of public office holders in relation to the handling of the repayment of Senate expenses by Sen. Mike Duffy and the conduct of officials in the Prime Minister's Office in this process go to the heart and the trust of Canadians' need to have a democratic institution," Andrews proclaimed.

The most senior official of the Government of Canada — the chief of staff to the prime minister — had provided a cash gift of $90,000 to a sitting parliamentarian! "The issues raise very troubling questions, which have yet to be answered and which merit the immediate action of the committee" he said.

But the then committee chair, a recently elected young NDP MP named Pierre-Luc Dusseault, was unwilling to bend the agenda to hear Andrews' motion. So it was pushed to the end of the meeting, at which point the Tories — as Andrews had predicted — moved to have the meeting held in camera. There, the motion was dismissed without Canadians seeing the six Tory MPs — Brad Butt, John Carmichael, Patricia Davidson, Earl Dreeshen, Colin Mayes, and Chris Warkentin — carry out their orders from the party whip's office.

Sean Kilpatrick/CANADIAN PRESS
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 17, 2016.

On Tuesday, six Liberals — Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Raj Saini, Greg Fergus, Mona Fortier, Chris Bittle and Michel Picard, all first-term MPs — voiced their opposition to a similar motion in a public and loud way. They told Canadians they saw no need in having their leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, called to testify before their committee over perceived ethical lapses in accepting two family trips to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.

And, this time, it was the Conservatives trying to bring a Liberal prime minister to account.

Tory MP Peter Kent argued that a December report by Mary Dawson, the outgoing ethics commissioner, on the prime minister's trips to a registered lobbyist's holiday home was so serious that Trudeau should make himself available to answer questions.

It was this committee's job, Kent told MPs Tuesday, to respond to the reports of the ethics commissioner. "This is a calm and respectful setting.... There is no heckling..., questions can be put in a relaxed manner over a period of an hour or two."


If the ministers and deputy ministers could come before the committee, why not the prime minister? Kent asked.

Trudeau should be "courageous" and come explain himself, chimed in Quebec Conservative MP Jacques Gourde.

The lone NDP MP asked the Liberals to look beyond their own situation. Surely they could see the impact they would be making?

"This isn't just about Justin Trudeau," said Nathan Cullen, the NDP's ethics critic. "This is about the system that we have in place in Canada and whether it is sufficient to protect public interests when they cross over with private interests.

"Put yourselves in our shoes," he pleaded. "You have a sitting prime minister who for the first time has been found in violation of the ethics rules that guide us as all parliamentarians. He is the most powerful elected figure in the country. Not only should the standard be the same as it is for all of us, I would argue it should be even higher because of that power and that influence that he holds."

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It's worrisome, Cullen went on, that Trudeau and the Grits would suggest that 30-second non-answers in question period and "an awkward" 15-minute press conference were enough when it came to accountability. "I'm just imagining for my friends, my little friends across the way, if this exact scenario had laid itself out for prime minister Harper. I'm sure you'd be raising some of the things that I have," he said, without a hint of sarcasm.

"It may seem like a risk," Cullen said, to bring the prime minister in front of the opposition for a no-holds-barred grilling, "[but] I think it is far riskier to deny this opportunity. I really do."

Outside the Wellington Street committee room, where the Tories voiced their disappointment that the Grits had defeated their motion and Cullen wondered what further precedent the Liberals were establishing, a brave Liberal faced the cameras.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a 33-year-old already known for sparring with his government when it came to matters he felt strongly about, defended the Grit MPs' actions. He had been one of only two Liberals to address the meeting.

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"[The prime minister] isn't disputing the ethics commissioner's findings," Erskine-Smith said, in explaining his vote. "It's why he said he would take precautionary methods going forward to make sure this never happens again."

The ethics committee shouldn't be used to "relitigate" questions that would be asked in question period, he added. And Canadians would have a chance (as witnessed on Tuesday evening) to ask the prime minister directly about the report during his town halls across the country, he added. "The committee should be focused on substantive changes to the law," he said.

But then, as he walked away from the bright lights and the scrum of reporters, Erskine-Smith offered what many in his party were probably thinking.

"As any Canadian, I don't want to see any public office holder violate the act, but the prime minister was sincere in his apology, and I think that is the important thing."