Tuesday we saw a big day in Ottawa when the Co-Founders of WE, the Kielburger brothers, testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. It was testimony the likes of which we hadn’t seen in this town in a while and that really didn’t do them, nor the government, any favours. It was a performance that has many people talking for the past couple of days since.
But that appearance was but a mere hors d’oeuvre for the main course that came this afternoon. Today we saw an even rarer sight; a sitting Prime Minister testifying before a House of Commons committee. That was then followed by testimony from his Chief of Staff, for a long afternoon into the evening of political viewing. And heck, if the NHL and NBA are playing games on the last week of July thanks to COVID-19, I guess it figures we’d see the kind of political drama we’d usually see in the winter here in the middle of the summer too. It was quite the meeting and similar to what I did with the Kielburgers testimony on Tuesday, here are my observations and take aways from what we saw:
- My main impression from the Prime Minister’s opening statement could be summed up thusly: the details he said he knew are ones that he could have told us months & the details he said he didn’t know are ones he should have answers to going into this testimony. That odd dynamic left me with far more questions than answers coming out of the meeting. It makes me wonder why he didn’t tell us the things he said he knew way back when this all started over a month ago, or even back when he apologized weeks ago? It makes me wonder why you would keep that to yourself because assuming it’s all true, it would help explain some things. Yet at the same time, while he had those answers down pat, he didn’t have simple answers to key details, to questions he had to know were coming. It made him look unprepared at best, or at worst, evasive.
- Under the Prime Ministers own timeline, he said that he learned about this program on May 8th when he learned it was coming to Cabinet for approval. He said that once he learned about the recommendation of WE, he says he recognized the potential issues around how it could be perceived, and he says that he sent it back for more scrutiny. In saying that, the PM admitted what everyone else has seen, that there was a problem here. He also implied that while he his dedicated to youth and has made a career of working this youth, he hadn’t heard anything about this until May 8th and had “no intervention” with it at all. For context, he announced the Canada Student Service Grant on April 22nd, which was a big announcement for him at that time. I understand that a Prime Minister is very busy and may not know every in and out of everything all the time, but is he expecting us to believe that a no point between April 22nd and May 8th did he ask about this grant or it’s progress? Are we being asked to believe that the PM who made his career being all about the youth and has told us the youth are his passion wasn’t the least bit curious about what was going on with this massive investment for youth?
- Also during his testimony the Prime Minister had moments of amazing circular logic that was making me dizzy trying to keep up, all while undercutting his own version of events. For example, while the PM said that he recognized the potential issues that could come with WE, so much so that he puts the brakes on it for a bit, yet then said that he had regretted asking questions to getting to the bottom of those issues. So he says he saw a problem, asked questions because he recognized a problem, but then suggests that he regrets that and in the process implies that he should have buried his head in the sand instead, all so that WE could have continued with that program? Seriously, in one breath you had the PM saying “we did our due diligence and we dealt with problems when we saw them” and in the next one he was saying “I shouldn’t have done that due diligence because it lead to WE not doing the program”. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t get to say you’re ethical and diligent while at the same time saying “damn, I should have ignored the ethics and just kept my eyes closed”. Yet that’s what the PM tried to do.
- The Prime Minister said some things specific to the Canada Student Service Grant itself which lead me to more questions about his story about what he knew. In regard to the grant, he said that it will not go forward now because “only WE could run it”, a position that has been laughable from the very start. But that made me think about the PMs announcement on April 22nd and what he says he didn’t know then. Are we to believe that this Prime Minister, who is so dedicated to youth as he tells us, would have made such a big deal about such a large amount of funding for youth if he knew that the ability to deliver it was going to be so impossible? Nowhere in the announcement of that funding does it say “funding conditional on the ability to find someone able to provide the funding”. You would never say that in an announcement because governments don’t create programs out of the blue that are so narrow that you would end up in such a position. Working under that assumption, and given the importance of this program to the Prime Minister, politically and personally, you’d think he would be moving heaven and earth to ensure that this program was run, period, regardless who ran it. You’d think they would change program details, funding conditions and all of that to ensure that it got done because, as he has told us, it’s all supposed to be about the youth, right? Yet instead of doing all that, the PM just told everyone today that it’s “WE or Bust” when it comes to this funding and that without WE, the kids are out of luck. Again, are we to believe that back on April 22nd this Prime Minister made a huge funding announcement whose delivery was completely contingent of the ability of a third party to deliver, and didn’t know more than the nothing he says he knew about it?
- In response to a question from Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the PM managed to bring more doubt onto the sincerity of his testimony. When Barrett asked Trudeau if he felt if WE should be running this program today, the PM dodged the question saying that “we’ll never know”, which jumped out at me. Remember the PM had just finished telling everyone earlier that he regretted asking questions of this agreement that lead us to the point where we are now, where the PM has decided to not go ahead with the program because WE won’t deliver it. With that being the case, you’d think that the PM would still have faith in WE and their ability to run this because heck, he just said that he regretted “asking questions” that he tries to suggest set the wheels in motion to end up where we are now. You’d think that if he were lamenting that fact that meant he felt that WE should still be the one and only ones to run this grant. Yet he refused to say so, which was another flip. So in the span of a half hour the PM told Canadians that he regrets having spoken up on WE, said this grant won’t go ahead because WE won’t run it, yet refused to say if he still felt WE was the right organization to deliver it. To put it politely, that’s all very contradictory
- In response to a question from Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin regarding conflicts of interest, the PM gave an answer that was not only disconnected from the fact, but you could argue was counter to what the PM himself said in his own apology weeks before. He told the committee that he wasn’t in an actual conflict regarding WE when he approved the grant at cabinet. No he said there was just a “perception” of a conflict there, a statement that knocked my head back a bit. Not to be too snarky about this, but after being found ethically wanting by the Ethics Commissioner twice already, this Prime Minister might not be the best judge of what is or isn’t a conflict of interest. Again, harkening back to the comment I made at the start, if that’s what he truly felt was the case, why didn’t he say it way back when he gave his apology for not recusing himself? It just doesn’t add up.
- For the final round of testimony from Chief of Staff Katie Telford, from what I watched I only saw a few things of note that she brought forward that couldn’t have been answered by a Minister or the PM, that being the piece around questionable timelines. When you look at the timeline, of the PM stalling the cabinet approval on May 8th but WE started incurring expenses on May 5th, the start date on the contribution agreement. It’s not a good look and Telford didn’t have a good reply to that. That also undercut the PM pointing to pushing back the ultimate approval of this contribution agreement to May 22nd. Once WE started spending money on the program “in good faith” as they put it, are we to believe that this wasn’t going to be ultimately approved on May 8th, May 22nd or whenever it got to cabinet? That’s a serious hole in the governments case, one that they really didn’t do a good job of addressing.
- Beyond that important piece of testimony, I don’t think that Telford should have been called before the committee. I understand why she was called to testify but if you listened to that testimony you would be left to ask “why was she called at all?” When it comes to having called her to testify to this, I believe this is a good case of where the opposition overplayed its hand. You only get to pull the “call the senior staff to testify card” so many times, so you need to use it judiciously. I can’t knock the thought of calling her to testify to a scandal like this, but unless you’ve got real big questions to ask that their elected bosses couldn’t speak to, it’s a waste of time. And I would call the hour or so of that testimony today a suboptimal use of committee time.
My biggest take away from this meeting today comes back to two points; the lax approach by the Prime Minister to his testimony and that he came offering no solutions. I was really struck at how unstructured and relatively unprepared he seemed testifying today. Not having simple details and answers to questions that you knew were coming didn’t help his case and I would argue undercut his attempts to explain this all away. It also hurt his attempts to seem sincere at probably the worst time, the moment when he needed the most to be sincere.
The sincerity of his testimony and his apologies are also undercut by the lack of something very important to any sense of closure in this story: actions to correct things. We’ve seen no resignations or reassignments of minister or staff responsible for this. We’ve seen no punishment laid out for what happened here. We haven’t seen any changes in policies or procedures, no changes to ethics legislation or new legislation to address such issues. We haven’t even seen a hint of any such thing and yet today coming before that committee offered the PM a chance to announce any, some or all of those things.
Today would have been the perfect opportunity for a Prime Minister who was truly sincere in his apologies and wanting to do better to come before Canadians with actual actions he was going to take. He could have shown that not only was he sorry for his mistakes, but that he had learned from those mistakes and shown Canadians how they were going to do better. But like with the past scandals that ended up before the Ethics Commissioner, this Prime Minister has shown that while he will apologize until the organically fed cows come home, he won’t actually act to do better. Actions speak louder than words, especially when we have been a steady diet of nothing but sweet apologies. That complete lack of any action, any plan, or any offers to take actions to do better probably does the most damage to the Prime Ministers attempts to “sorry” this away. And without any actions this scandal will continue. Where it goes from here, we’ll see but with the lack of actions or closure offered by Mr. Trudeau today, I feel safe in saying it will continue none the less.