A dispute over the scope and composition of a House of Commons committee will come to a head today in a vote that could trigger a federal election in the midst of the second deadly wave of COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that the vote on a Conservative motion to create a special anti-corruption committee will be a test of confidence in his minority Liberal government.
The Conservatives are willing to drop “anti-corruption” from the name of their proposed committee but the intent remains the same: to create an opposition-dominated committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other issues the official Opposition maintains reek of the government funnelling pandemic-related funding to Liberal friends.
The motion would give the committee broad powers to call witnesses, including the prime minister and other ministers, and to demand documents on a range of issues, including the speaking fees drawn by Trudeau’s mother and brother over the past 12 years.
The Liberals maintain the committee would amount to a time-consuming fishing expedition that would paralyze the government when it should be focused on helping Canadians get through the second wave of the pandemic.
They’ve proposed their own special committee to examine all government pandemic-related spending, including but not exclusively the WE affair and other matters the Opposition deems suspicious.
The Bloc Quebecois is planning to support the Conservative motion but NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh refused Tuesday to give a clear indication of what his party will do.
“It won’t be me that calls an election,” Singh said Wednesday morning, but did not answer questions about potential developments.
Asked whether his party had made up its mind on the vote, NDP MP Matthew Green said, “If so, I haven’t got the memo.”
New Democrats have said they believe the Conservative motion is “over the top,” but they’ve also said the Liberal counter-proposal isn’t good enough _ particularly since it calls for a Liberal chair rather than allowing an opposition member to preside.
Singh said Tuesday that making the issue a test of confidence is absurd and that his party won’t take part in a “farce” that gives Trudeau an excuse to force an election.
Should New Democrats abstain on today’s vote, the Liberals and combined Conservative and Bloc MPs would have an equal number of votes, 153 each. That would leave the three Green and two Independent MPs to decide the fate of the government.
On Wednesday, Bloc Quebecois House leader Alain Therrien reiterated his party’s support for the Conservative motion to create an anti-corruption committee.
“The situation of WE Charity is so complex, so big, that it is absolutely necessary that we have ? a committee that only looks at what happened in WE Charity,” he said in French.
The Liberals’ “scorched-earth” politics are the product of a “club of cronyism,” Therrien said, rendering compromise impossible.
He also fired off a round at the NDP, suggesting New Democrats have obediently followed Grit demands.
“The NDP have acted in the last little while a little like the Liberals’ lap dog,” he said.
Green Leader Annamie Paul struck a more collegial tone, stressing collaboration amid the pandemic and calling for Trudeau and O’Toole to tone down the “unnecessary brinksmanship.”
“Now is not the time for us to weaken this cross-partisan cooperation when people still need our help to meet their most urgent needs,” Paul said in a statement.
“The Liberal and Conservative parties’ high-stakes, high-tech game of chicken can have no winner. They should leave such games outside of Parliament, and focus on the urgent needs of people in Canada.”
The dispute comes after the Liberals filibustered opposition attempts to revive their investigations into the WE affair at the Commons finance and ethics committees, whose probes were shut down when Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August.
The controversy revolves around the government’s decision last June to pay WE Charity $43.5 million to administer a now-cancelled student service grant program, despite Trudeau’s long-standing family ties to the organization.
Trudeau has said public servants recommended WE as the only group that could manage the program. He has nevertheless apologized for not recusing himself from the decision to involve WE, as has former finance minister Bill Morneau, who also has close family ties to WE.
Both Trudeau and Morneau are under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2020.