OTTAWA — If repetition is the mother of skill, one political science professor suggests it’s unclear what the prime minister has learned about conflict of interest while in public office.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could face up to three hours of grilling in the House of Commons finance committee Thursday to answer questions about his family links to WE Charity and the decision to tap the organization to run a $912-million student volunteer grant program. The deal has since been cancelled.
Allan Tupper, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said one of the lingering questions about this latest ethics controversy is about the prime minister’s grasp of fundamental rules.
“Mr. Trudeau doesn’t seem to understand basic conflicts of interests,” Tupper told HuffPost Canada.
Tupper referenced Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s own personal connections to the organization — flags that spurred the federal ethics commissioner to launch and expand on Wednesday an investigation into the cabinet minister’s perceived conflict of interest.
Morneau’s two daughters have been involved with the charity. One daughter spoke at events as an unpaid speaker, and his other daughter currently works on contract with the organization until the end of August.
His family also donated $100,000 to the charity since 2018 and received free travel to visit the organization’s school projects in Kenya and Ecuador.
Watch: Accepting Ottawa’s student-volunteer program was a mistake, the Kielburgers say. Story continues below.
This is Morneau’s second federal ethics investigation. Trudeau is facing his third.
The repetition of ethics probes smacks of déjà vu for Tupper. “I mean, what’s going on, how many times do we have to go through things like this?” the political science professor said.
Unlike the SNC-Lavalin affair that rocked the Prime Minister’s Office last year, Tupper said this latest scandal is a more “cut and dry” example of conflict of interest.
The Conflict of Interest Act requires public office holders recuse themselves from discussions that may put them in a conflict of interest.
Both Trudeau and Morneau have apologized for failing to recuse themselves from cabinet discussions related to the decision for WE Charity to administer the CSSG.
Another kind of déjà vu
Trudeau is currently under investigation for potentially violating the same section of the Conflict of Interest Act he was found to have previously breached in a 2017 report.
Tupper said the controversy illustrates how powerful the prime minister’s position is in Canada compared to other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, where the leader can be removed by their own party.
“This is no doubt a person who sets examples for others, who is a leader in a lot of this stuff, both in his own party and in the society,” he said of the position of prime minister.
Under the 2014 Reform Act, MPs have the option of adopting sweeping new powers after each election that gives caucus members a way to remove their leader. But Liberals have never adopted these rules.
Trudeau could still be asked for his resignation at caucus.
What likely won’t be quick is Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s investigations.
It takes on average seven months for Dion’s office to complete investigation reports. And new details have already emerged since his office launched its probes.
The controversy gained a new dimension last week after Morneau told finance committee members that he repaid the WE organization $41,366 that same day to reimburse a free trip he and his family took to visit the charity’s projects in Kenya and Ecuador 2017.
Morneau said he was “completely surprised” after a recent review of travel expenses that he was unable to find receipts for the trip. WE later confirmed it was a free trip.
WE organization co-founder Craig Kielburger told the House finance committee Tuesday that he doesn’t consider hiring Morneau’s daughter for a contract job or paying members of Trudeau’s family to be lobbying.
Michelle Douglas, the former WE Charity board chair who resigned in March citing a “breakdown of trust” between her and the Kielburger brothers. She told finance committee members earlier board members were told speakers at WE Day events were not usually paid.
Kielburger, who answered MPs’ questions for four hours alongside his brother Marc, said the controversy is “killing a Canadian charity” and bemoaned signing the original deal.
“When Employment and Social Development Canada asked us to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, we regret that we didn’t recognize how this decision would be perceived,” he said.
The brothers said due to the conditions of the deal, WE would not have made any money in administering the program.
They said once the controversy surrounding the deal turned “political,” they returned, or are in the process of returning, an initial $30 million received to get the program going.
PM created conflict of interest screen after first violation
After Trudeau was found to have violated federal laws for accepting family vacations to the Aga Khan’s island, his office agreed in 2018 to a conflict of interest screen to prevent further ethical breaches.
The prime minister named his Chief of Staff Katie Telford and the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet as those responsible for administering his conflict of interest screen “to avoid the perception of preferential treatment” to the Aga Khan.
Ian Shugart, the new Privy Council clerk who appeared before the finance committee July 21, told members he believes the involvement of the prime minister and finance minister in discussions about the CSSG and WE Charity to be unavoidable.
He cited the “importance of the issue to the government’s overall efforts to deal with the impacts of the pandemic and given the scale of the contribution” as reasons.
Shugart said the prime minister’s involvement with WE Day and his family’s connections to the charity have been in the public domain for years.
“In this case, the issue of conflict of interest was not raised,” Canada’s top civil servant told committee members.
Telford is scheduled to take her turn in the hot seat after the prime minister wraps his committee appearance.
With the summer days melting into August, it remains unclear what the fate of the CSSG will be before students return to school in the fall.
Note: HuffPost’s previous owner, AOL, sponsored and participated in WE Charity events and Free The Children trips.