OTTAWA — Liberal MPs flexed their majority in a House of Commons ethics committee Wednesday by rejecting an opposition bid to further probe the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Opposition parties had urged their parliamentary colleagues to allow House of Commons Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to testify and reopen the scandal — three weeks before an expected federal election call — that saw the Liberals’ polling numbers plummet earlier this year.
Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who voted with the opposition, said he supported a further probe, because he feels the ethics watchdog erred in his report and he wants to question him.
Watch: Trudeau repeats stance on SNC-Lavalin affair. Story continues below.
Dion released a scathing report last week finding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Act when he sought to influence his then attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, into offering the Quebec engineering giant a deferred prosecution agreement.
Dion ruled that Trudeau had acted to further the private interest of the company rather than the public interest, as the government asserted, of protecting 9,000 Canadian jobs.
“In my view, that conclusion is legally incorrect,” Erskine-Smith said.
Erskine-Smith said he thought Wilson-Raybould had not done her due diligence in ruling out a deferred prosecution agreement. He said he also believed, however, that inappropriate pressure was exerted on the attorney general.
Dion had noted in his report that nine witnesses had wanted to say more than they felt the law allowed and he pointed the finger at the prime minister’s department, the Privy Council Office, for refusing to waive further cabinet confidences.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told the committee she was really troubled by the report.
“The prime minister is guilty here of the kind of offence for which resignation is appropriate,” she said. She clarified that she wasn’t asking Trudeau to resign, but rather illustrating the seriousness of the issue.
The motion was defeated five to four, with the remaining five Liberals voting against.
“"The prime minister is guilty here of the kind of offence for which resignation is appropriate."”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had called out the six Liberal MPs who sit on the committee — Erskine-Smith, Mona Fortier, Frank Baylis, Michel Picard, Raj Saini and Anita Vandenbeld — hoping to put pressure on them to support the opposition bid.
“These MPs have the power to decide if an investigation will proceed,” Scheer said, during a news conference in Richmond Hill, Ont. earlier in the day.
“We will learn today whether the scandal and corruption is limited just to the Liberal party’s leader, in the form of Justin Trudeau, or whether or not this rot has infected the entire Liberal caucus and the entire Liberal party,” Scheer added.
Erskine-Smith said he was not acting because of pressure from the Conservatives, saying he had received only 10 messages at his office.
Conservative MP Peter Kent requested the emergency meeting last week, citing the “unprecedented nature” of the ethics commissioner’s report.
Kent noted Wednesday that the previous ethics watchdog, Mary Dawson, testified before committee after she found Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Act the first time in 2017, when he took a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.
The chair of the committee, Bob Zimmer, said Dion was standing by on video link to testify.
Fellow committee member, NDP MP Charlie Angus, also made a separate request for Dion to testify. But Angus’ request went a step further, proposing that the committee invite Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his former chief of staff, Ben Chin, as well as Trudeau to appear before members.
Kent described Angus’ bid to launch a new probe into the SNC-Lavalin affair as a “second chance” for Liberal MPs, who voted against his own motion minutes earlier.
But the wording of Angus’ motion didn’t get the support of the one Liberal MP who had voted out of lock step with his party. Erskine-Smith said he wouldn’t support the motion, calling it an “overreach.”
‘This is about damage control’
Angus told reporters that in his experience on the ethics committee, he’s never seen an effort to halt an officer of Parliament from testifying. “And we saw that today,” he said, “This is about damage control.”
After the meeting, Liberal MPs stood behind MacKinnon as he accused the opposition of playing “abject partisan political games on the eve of an election.”
MacKinnon is a former national director of the Liberal party. The Gatineau MP is not a regular member of the ethics committee.
Raitt, who isn’t a regular member of the committee either, called MacKinnon’s charge that “partisan gamesmanship” motivated opposition members to call the emergency meeting “very disappointing.”
It’s not an unusual request to invite the ethics commissioner to answer questions about their reports, she said, referring to Dawson’s appearances.
Raitt accused the prime minister of muzzling the ethics commissioner.
“I guess what it comes down to is [that] the prime minister wants to have the final word, doesn’t he?” Raitt told reporters. “We’re just piling on one scandal after another.”
Since the ethics commissioner’s report came out, Trudeau has said repeatedly that he disagrees with Dion’s conclusion that he used his position as prime minister to influence the former attorney general.
No apology from Trudeau
In February, Wilson-Raybould told the Commons justice committee that she experienced a “consistent and sustained effort” by government officials to intervene in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. She called the efforts “inappropriate” and likened the actions to political interference.
SNC-Lavalin faces foreign bribery and fraud charges. A conviction carries the risk of a 10-year ban on federal contracts and potential job losses in Canada. Giving the company a deferred prosecution agreement would allow it to avoid a conviction and pay a financial penalty instead.
Trudeau, who has long maintained that he acted out of concern for jobs at the Canadian company, has refused to apologize for his actions.
“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs, because that’s my job — to make sure Canadians and communities and pensioners and families across the country are supported, and that’s what I will always do,” Trudeau said during a stop in Fredericton last week.
The prime minister said he accepted the ethics commissioner’s report and that he takes “full responsibility” for his actions, while simultaneously insisting that he has done nothing wrong.