Normally summers are very quiet times around Ottawa, and for good reason. MPs head home, people take vacation and generally it’s a period of quiet and a time that people recharge their batteries. But just as with everything else that COVID-19 has touched, the summer in Ottawa isn’t the same either. Given the response required to this global pandemic Ottawa isn’t as sleepy as usual, for better or worse.
But despite these abnormal days, normally it takes a lot for a story or scandal to break through at this time of year and when that happens, it’s because it’s a big scandal. And folks that’s what has happened over the past couple of weeks with the WE scandal. It’s been amazing to watch this whole thing spiral out of control over these two weeks, from a sole sourced contract that never felt right, to the Prime Minister’s connections to the organization (which were never that secret by the way), to the cancellation of that contract in the hope that would end this and right up to the announcement that the Ethics Commissioner would be investigating this, assuring that we’d get a Trudeau III report from him at some later date. But on top of that, we’ve seen other crazy tentacles spring out from this story, from the Conservatives wanting the RCMP to investigate this story and up to this stunning video that surfaced just days ago:
When I first saw the first two-thirds of that video my reaction was that the Liberal social media team had made a really slick ad for their guy. Then of course the punchline hit, showing us that it was a video for WE itself, something that was far from being apparent before that point. And that video really helps to encapsulate the problem for the Liberal government and WE in this case, something that try as they might they cannot get past. And oh boy are they trying. We’re seeing Liberals coming out of the woodwork trying to point to conservative politicians and family members who have ever come within contact with WE as proof that there is nothing wrong here, or at least that the Conservatives are being hypocritical in their comments on this story. Then we have WE itself, who put this out this morning via some of Canada’s largest daily newspapers:
Okay everyone, there’s a very old saying in politics that holds very true here: If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That ad is as sure a sign of losing the narrative and battle for perception as anything else we’ve seen so far. And really folks, it makes sense that both the government and WE are losing this battle so clearly at this point, and it really has nothing to do with how many people got speaking fees (or who wasn’t chosen to get honorariums), something I’ll come back to in a moment.
No, the reason why they are losing this battle is because the idea that they got this sole-sourced contract to run a near $1 Billion program in the first place and that it happened at the suggestion of the public service. Having worked in the public service before being in politics, specifically in a department that administered these kinds of programs, it’s mind-blowingly incomprehensible that WE got this contract based on experience and merit. And the idea that they were “the only ones” who could possibly deliver it was just a cherry on top of this. Those assertions were smelly on their face, especially given that you have entire civil service departments with decades of background and expertise in delivering programs just like that, in short time frames too. WE had no apparent background and expertise in delivering such a program, let alone on such a large scale with such huge budgets. Heck according to the Toronto Star, WE had to hire 465 contract staff to run this program, 450 of which were promptly laid off when this story hit the fan. That was on top of the people they had already laid off during COVID-19. With all respect to the people who work for WE, on the face of it there was no way they were in a position to run this program properly or anywhere near as well as the Canadian civil service was.
That alone would make this story a scandal because it’s just bad management of government funds. Then when you add to the fact the details that had come out about how WE was going to administer this program. Firstly, they were getting nearly $20 million to administer the program, taking that much out of the pot of money that was supposed to go to help students at this time. Then we learned that WE was going to be using some of those funds to be hiring students to volunteer for them, which from the outside looked like they were trying to replace previous laid off staff with this funding aimed at others. And then we heard stories about the bonuses that were going to be paid to teachers and others who “recruited” large numbers of volunteers. $12,000 to teachers to do it, a concept that is completely foreign to government-managed programs and nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Most funding programs I worked with in the past had very strict terms and conditions to them and that kind of use of funds would have been outside of them, so I’m stunned that it would somehow be allowed now. It would also be more money being siphoned away from students to the pockets of others, far from getting the best “value for money” for those in need.
To me, this all screams of something that was already far outside the norms for the public service, so far so that I have a very hard time believing that this came at their suggestion. From all those details alone there would be more than enough of a scandal to investigate and that needs to be noted here. All those details made this sole-sourced contract appear questionable and ripe for scrutiny, regardless of who WE paid speaking fees to or not. That needs to be kept in mind because the suggestion that there was nothing wrong here before we knew who was getting paid by whom for speaking is bunk. This attempted contracting out and Amway-ization of a federal government program would have sent up many red flags on its own, without that other three ring circus.
But let’s be clear, that circus adds another layer to this story that does make it worse, especially given the history of this government in matters regarding their friends. The fact that the Ethics Commissioner moved so fast to investigate this case, when he didn’t move as fast to investigate what became the Trudeau Reports I & II, sends a message about what he sees as clear in this case. The fact that the Prime Minister’s family received payments for speaking doesn’t look good, but that by itself doesn’t cross any lines. No, it’s only when the Prime Minister refuses to recuse himself from decisions involving that organization that a line is crossed, something that should have been easy for him to do. The same goes for the Finance Minister in this case, as any attachments to WE should have been a clear warning to simply step aside in decisions involving them.
Something tells me that if both the PM and the Finance Minister had stepped aside from this decision, if there was nothing that worried anyone around that choice, then it should have passed without their involvement in the discussion on the matter. If there was truly nothing to see here when it came to this story, it would have sailed through the rest of cabinet without a worry in the world. The fact that both didn’t recuse themselves just adds more suspicion and shade to this story, creating more scandal for this government completely of their own making.
Remember, it was this Prime Minister who told his ministers that they had to go beyond the mere letter of the law when it came to their ethics, that they had to avoid even a perception of unethical behaviour, even if it was technically above board. In this case, it appears that both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister not only failed that higher test, they may be managed to run afoul of the letter of the law too. This is all mind-blowing to me that after everything this PM has been through that still he apparently managed to make such a rookie mistake on adhering to the basics of obeying conflict of interest rules. At every level of government you see elected officials face decisions around conflicts of interest and regularly to see municipal councilors, school board trustees and others recuse themselves from minor decisions in which they may have a conflict of interest. It happens all the time for tiny things. So it’s hard to believe that the Prime Minister of Canada, now in his 5th year serving in the role, doesn’t know this. He either is seriously underinformed about the rules he’s supposed to work under, or he’s willfully ignored them. There is no “whoops, I didn’t know” that will cut it here, nor should there be.
And that is the crux of the problem for this government that no amount of attempted whataboutism towards Conservatives who also got paid will fix. The fact is that this government entered into a sole-source contract that had many red flags on it’s face, and those responsible for the decision who had long-standing and strong connections to the organization given that contract didn’t recuse themselves from that near billion dollar decision. This is now not an isolated incident of a lapse of judgement by this Prime Minister, which is why it’s notable that you don’t see hoards of Liberal MPs rushing to his defense. They clearly understand the basics of conflict of interest and are clearly flustered about how they find themselves in this spot again.
For the Liberals, their only hope here of mitigating this case is the Conservative overplaying their hand, which they seem all too eager to do. With Conservative Ethics Critic Michael Barrett calling for the RCMP to investigate, they’re totally overplaying their hand and aren’t helping their cause. There is a lot about what’s there that stinks and should be investigated but is it criminal? Sorry, that looks like a stretch. Even in their press conference on their request they wouldn’t say they believe there was a criminal act. Their words were all about “maybe, could be, if”, trying to smear the Liberals in the attempt. That’s how you manage to missing scoring an easy goal on an open net, something this group of Conservatives have ample experience doing. Could there be involvement by the RCMP at some point down the road? Honestly, I don’t know. But to try to rush to that point now simply looks like political opportunism on the part of the Conservatives and only undercuts the case on the real, serious issues at hand.
In doing so, the Conservatives are doing a disservice to Canadians who expect and deserve to have the public purse protected and managed properly. There is plenty to investigate here and they should stick to that. As for the Liberals, trying to obfuscate and muddy the waters here won’t change the underlying facts. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and that means sometimes you need to recuse yourself from decisions involving your friends, whether that be about a $900 million sole-sourced contract or for a requisition for 250 pencils. That’s the standard that elected officials are supposed to follow and they know that. They can’t seriously point the finger of blame at people who frankly had no decisions in front of them to recuse themselves from to try to defend their lack of recusal.
Furthermore, this is no longer an isolated incident, as this makes the third strike for the Prime Minister who vowed to hold himself and his ministers to a higher ethical standard than those before him. Surely after getting to three cases where his ethics have been put into serious question, there must be a recognition that the problem lies in the PMO and not with the rest of us. Any attempt to try to twist this into anything other than that is just willful blindness, the same kind of blindness that lead us to this case to begin with. So much for those higher standards because it’s 2020 I guess.