POLITICS
02/16/2021 17:11 EST | Updated 02/17/2021 09:37 EST

Prorogation Amid WE Charity Affair ‘Saved’ Trudeau, Opposition MPs Claim

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez faced a grilling at committee.

Adrian Wyld/CP via AP
Standing in front of the House of Commons chamber Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Aug. 18, 2020.

OTTAWA — Opposition parties accused the federal Liberals Tuesday of pulling the plug on Parliament last summer to save Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from further WE Charity controversy.

Alain Therrien, the House leader for the Bloc Québécois, noted that Bill Morneau — who was embroiled in the WE affair — had stepped down as finance minister and MP on Aug. 17. 

“On Aug. 18, you prorogue Parliament — you stop the committee focused on WE Charity, to save whom? After the finance minister, who resigns? Who is supposed to be in hot water on this file? Who should be resigning? Well, it’s your prime minister! You saved your prime minister, that’s what you did. Clearly,” he said, in French.

“I’m totally in disagreement with what you said, Mr. Therrien,” Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez responded.

For an hour, Rodriguez tried his best to dissuade the opposition from thinking prorogation had had anything to do with the prime minister’s trying to avoid scrutiny at a committee. It had everything to do with writing a throne speech — “a master plan,” Rodriguez said, to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“COVID changed the world…. The pandemic changed everything,” he said. 

Watch: Trudeau says fate of WE Charity ‘unfortunate’

 

But the opposition parties had their minds made up.

“There was only one reason for prorogation to be called in early August,” Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski said, “and that was to shut down committees who were investigating the WE Charity scandal. That was the singular reason for doing so.”

Prorogation was not necessary, and even if it was desired, it could have been done weeks later, he added. “So the prorogation excuse that you are offering, minister, is weak,” said the Saskatchewan MP. 

Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell suggested the Liberals could have simply made a declaration in the chamber rather than prepare a full throne speech. 

What the government was really trying to do, Deltell suggested, was avoid an Aug. 19 committee hearing with the Speaker’s Spotlight agency, at which questions would be asked about the paid engagements booked for Trudeau’s mother, Margaret; his brother, Alexandre (Sasha); and possibly even Trudeau himself before he became leader of the Liberal party. 

Deltell demanded the government table all emails, text messages, memos from Rodriguez’ office to the prime minister’s office so that opposition MPs’ could find the real motivation for prorogation. 

Rodriguez skated.

“So your answer is ‘no,’” Deltell declared.

 

The minister was saved by Liberal MP Stéphane Lauzon, who asked Rodriguez to expand on the effects of the pandemic. 

“What happened is completely unacceptable,” said Rodriguez, referring to the disproportionate toll the pandemic has had on Canada’s seniors, in particular, but also on everyone else.

“We discovered that our seniors are much more vulnerable than we would have believed. We discovered that our social safety net was not as solid as we thought, that the holes were much too big,” he said. “The number of deaths, from our seniors, is an incredible sadness.”

Rodriguez insisted the government had needed to prorogue to do a hard “reset” and send a message to the public, and to the bureaucracy, that it was all hands on deck.

If that was the case, the Bloc’s Therrien shot back, the Liberals should have prorogued last March, when the government was struggling to respond to the new crisis.

“No, no,” Rodriguez said.

So then, why prorogue on Aug. 18, Therrien asked. Could it have had anything to do with Morneau’s resignation the previous day? 

Why not prorogue on Sept. 18 then? 

Rodriguez suggested Aug. 18 had been chosen randomly.

“It’s a date, just a date,” Rodriguez said.

“You’re trying to make a link between that [committee filibustering] and the prorogation, and as I explained before, there isn’t,” the Liberal House leader told the MPs.

“COVID-19 is in itself important enough to prorogue and reset,” he said.

Justin Tang/CP via AP
Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 20, 2020.

But NDP MP Daniel Blaikie wasn’t buying that. 

Isn’t the budget a more comprehensive document, one that involves much more consultation? he asked a senior public servant working in the department that supports the prime minister’s office.

“Typically the SFT [speech from the Throne] process is more restrictive than recent budget processes, which have had long consultation processes…. So I think the budget process is typically a longer one,” responded Allan Sutherland, an assistant secretary to the cabinet at the Privy Council Office. But he qualified the Throne speech as a “very special speech” that takes a long time to put together. 

He noted how the Liberal government’s Sept 23 speech, with its focus on protecting Canadians from COVID-19, helping them through the pandemic, then rebuilding and supporting investments geared towards environmental and social justice measures, had set the groundwork for the fall economic update, and the ministers’ updated mandate letters.

Sutherlandtold MPs nothing prevented the prime minister from proroguing Parliament for just one day, but he said it would have affected the government’s ability to consult widely.

“To have such a short one, you would have had to probably … keep it within kind of PMO [the Prime Minister’s Office], which wasn’t what was done in this case. There was widespread consultation and framing the future direction of the public service.” 

Liberals promised not to ‘resort to legislative tricks’ to duck scrutiny

Sutherland, who spearheaded one of the Conservatives’ Throne speeches, later added that this was neither the most controversial prorogation, nor the longest.

Back in 2008, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper asked the governor general to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid a confidence vote he was sure to lose. 

In their 2015 election platform, the Liberals promised never to do such a thing.

“We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” they wrote. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not.”

The Grits changed the rules in 2017 so future governments would have to provide a document outlining the reasons for the latest prorogation

The House of Commons’ procedure and House affairs committee has been studying the government’s explanation since mid-December.