OTTAWA — A House of Commons ethics committee meeting Wednesday ended with the defeat of a Conservative attempt to request a journalist to produce evidence to determine if the prime minister breached cabinet confidences in interviews about the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Conservative MP Lisa Raitt made the request after the Liberal majority on the committee defeated two motions to probe the scandal further and hear new testimony from the Commons’ ethics watchdog, Mario Dion. She later withdrew the request after being met with opposition.
Raitt had proposed that the committee ask Aaron Wherry, a CBC journalist and the author of Promise and Peril, to present “all recordings, notes, and other materials that he collected during his interviews with the prime minister.”
Watch the full ethics committee exchange:
Earlier, the deputy Conservative leader referred to Wherry’s biography of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “novel.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus said he opposed Raitt’s motion “in the strongest terms,” suggesting it was an affront on freedom of the press. “We cannot use our powers as parliamentarians to target journalists,” he said, adding that it is the role of the ethics committee, not members of the media, to hold officials to account.
“There has to be that separation — and a strong separation — between the role of journalism and the role of parliamentarians,” Angus said. “And that’s our committee’s role.”
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who earlier voted with the opposition to support a motion to allow the ethics commissioner to appear before the committee, called Raitt’s request “improper.”
Asked if Trudeau broke Cabinet confidences in his interviews with Wherry about SNC-Lavalin, Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson Chantal Gagnon replied, “No,” adding, “And we believe it’s entirely inappropriate for Conservative MPs to use their position to attack journalists for doing their job.”
SNC-Lavalin is facing foreign bribery and fraud charges. Under Canadian law, a conviction would strip the company of the ability to bid on federal contracts for 10 years.
The renewed attention on the SNC-Lavalin affair comes a week after the ethics commissioner tabled a damning report concluding that Trudeau used his position to influence former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to offer the Quebec company a remediation deal in the face of criminal charges.
Dion considered Trudeau’s actions to be a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.
Wilson-Raybould was subsequently shuffled out of her position and replaced with Quebec MP David Lametti.
The controversy damaged Liberal support in the year before an election. It also cost Trudeau two of his star ministers, Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott — who quit the cabinet in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould.
The former attorney general was allowed to testify before the Commons justice committee in February after the prime minister waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidences, but with the restriction that she would only be able to speak about events that happened before she was shuffled to veterans affairs.
Raitt said she appreciated Angus’ and Erskine-Smith’s “commentary” in response to her motion regarding the CBC journalist. She explained that her request was meant to fill a gap in information after the ethics commissioner noted that he experienced an “impasse” with the Privy Council Office over access to cabinet confidences.
Dion wrote in his report that the clerk of the Privy Council declined his request to “all Cabinet confidences” in respect to his inquiry.
The Milton MP offered to withdraw her motion “because I believe that the members don’t agree with me that it’s important to move ahead.”
Conservative MP Peter Kent, a long-time journalist, voted in favour of Raitt’s motion, but it was defeated 7-2.