POLITICS
08/19/2020 15:44 EDT | Updated 08/19/2020 18:46 EDT

Conservatives Claim ‘Coverup’ Behind Trudeau’s Prorogation Call

Pierre Poilievre says the prime minister would “love to have an election before the truth comes out.”

Federal Conservatives are accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of ducking accountability and orchestrating a “coverup” by proroguing Parliament amid the WE Charity controversy.

But with a throne speech planned for next month — and with it the opposition’s chance to topple the Liberals — key Conservatives won’t say whether they feel Canadians should head back to the polls.

Tory MPs Pierre Poilievre and Michael Barrett, the party’s critics for finance and for ethics, called a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday to react to Trudeau’s successful request for a prorogation. The move means Parliament will not sit again until Sept. 23, when the government will release a speech from the throne that Trudeau says will reset his legislative agenda in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre holds up redacted documents during a press conference in Ottawa on Aug. 19, 2020. The documents were tabled by the government at the House of Commons Finance Committee.

 

Though the House will return just two days after it was set to resume sitting, proroguing now cancels a planned sitting on Aug. 26. It also shuts down committees, including investigations by both the House finance and ethics committees into the government’s ill-fated decision to tap WE Charity to run the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG). 

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a coverup,” Poilievre said. “Conservatives will not relent. We will continue to fight to get to the truth.”

Poilievre told reporters that thousands of pages of newly released documents on the WE decision show why Trudeau “shut down those parliamentary investigations.” The Canadian Press reported that the documents revealpublic servants recommended WE Charity run the program, but also suggest Youth Minister Bardish Chagger helped put the group on the radar of bureaucrats.

The WE organization stood to receive $43.5 million to administer the CSSG, which was designed to pay students between $1,000 to $5,000 for up to 500 hours of volunteer work helping not-for-profit organizations respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Though Trudeau conceded he should have recused himself from the WE decision because of his family’s ties to the organization — such as his mother and brother receiving hefty speaking fees and expenses to appear at WE events— the prime minister has said he did not influence the decision of public servants to recommend WE run the program. Trudeau testified before the finance committee in July, saying he only learned on May 8 that Employment and Social Development Canada was recommending WE Charity administer the program.

During his press conference, Poilievre railed against the heavily redacted documents, at one point tossing to the ground pages covered in black ink.

“Why don’t we ask what’s in those pages at a parliamentary committee? Well, I’ll tell you why: Justin Trudeau shut down those parliamentary committees. When did he do it? The same day these documents became public,” he said. “What a coincidence.”

The government says the documents were vetted by lawyers to ensure they did not contain any sensitive information or cabinet confidences.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre throws a redacted document during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 19, 2020.

Poilievre noted an April email from Michelle Kovacevic, an assistant deputy minister for finance, who wrote to Privy Council Office officials to say the Prime Minister’s Office was “weighing in” on a student aid package that had become “a bit of a shit show.”

Poilievre also flagged correspondence between PMO staffer Ben Chin and WE Charity co-founder Craig Kielburger in late June, weeks after the cabinet had already approved WE deal. According to CBC News, Kielburger thanked Chin for “helping shape our latest program” with the government.

Barrett said his party will continue to press the Liberals for the truth. “And shuffling the deck chairs around the Titanic is not going to solve the problem,” he said, a dig at the cabinet shuffle this week that saw Chrystia Freeland take the reins as finance minister.

If the prorogation was truly about a throne speech and reset, Barrett said, Trudeau could have prorogued on Sept. 22 and had the speech delivered the next day. “This is about one thing and one thing only. It’s about hiding from the truth, avoiding accountability. And it’s his architecture of a coverup,” he said.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith also tweeted Wednesday that “while it’s not the end of the world to punt committee inquiries for a few weeks, the better response would have been to prorogue in mid-Sept.”

Election looming?

Still, the Tory MPs said it will be up to their next leader to decide, in consultation with the caucus, if another fall election is needed. Andrew Scheer’s successor as Conservative leader is set to be named this Sunday.

“Unlike the Liberals, we are not solely focused on the scandals that have the curtains burning in the prime minister’s office. There are a number of issues affecting Canadians. We’re in a global pandemic. We’re in recessionary times,” Barrett said when asked how it’s even a question at this point if Tories will try to bring down the government. 

Poilievre said in French that Trudeau would “love to have an election before the truth comes out.”

Election chatter has surfaced since Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchetsaid last week he would move a vote of non-confidence next month if he did not see resignations from Trudeau, Morneau, and Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Morneau stepped down Monday night, but said it was because he wants to prepare a bid to become the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Despite his earlier public “ultimatum,” Blanchet said Tuesday his party would vote against a throne speech if it does not include bigger health transfers to the provinces, more help for Quebec seniors, and aid to agricultural producers in supply-managed sectors.

The Canadian Press
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in the House of Commons foyer on Aug. 18, 2020.

With 156 seats in the House, Liberals would only need the support of the 24 NDP MPs to survive a confidence vote. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters Tuesday, ahead of the prorogation news, that his party is focused on helping Canadians.

“If the Liberal government continues to focus on helping their close friends instead of helping people, if they continue to be caught up in fighting themselves instead of helping families that are worried about the future, then we’ll have to look at all options,” he said.

At a press conference Tuesday, Trudeau denied he is daring opposition MPs to bring down his government and force an election.

“We do not want an election but it is obvious that the throne speech we gave eight months ago is no longer relevant for the reality that Canadians are living and that our government is facing,” he said. 

The prime minister said he will present a plan for a stronger economy that is more inclusive, greener, and fairer for all Canadians.

Trudeau: ‘We need a mandate from this Parliament’

“But we need a mandate from this Parliament to move forward on implementing these ambitious ideals and it’s important that we have an opportunity to debate it...,” he said. 

Canadians, through their parliamentarians, will be facing “a choice on the kind of response we need to take to this coronavirus crisis,” he said, of the confidence vote he was engineering.

Trudeau also defended proroguing despite the Liberal Party’s 2015 platform railing against the move being used as a political tactic.

“Stephen Harper and the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in order to shut it down and avoid a confidence vote.  We are proroguing Parliament to bring it back in exactly the same week it was supposed to come back anyway and force a confidence vote,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press