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Morneau takes the fall for Liberals’ latest ethical woes

Bill Morneau’s decision to resign from his post as finance minister as well as his Toronto Centre seat was the right one given the WE Charity scandal. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, caught up in the same controversy and also under investigation by the ethics commissioner, is less likely to follow.

The government had to do something in response to the situation, as both Morneau and Trudeau had too many links to the organization even before the government awarded it a lucrative contract to administer a youth program. The contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process, essentially a unilateral decision that would have paid WE Charity up to $43.5 million to administer the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant.

While Ottawa has been throwing a great deal of money at coronavirus-related relief programs, the WE Charity deal was just not palatable.

While there were issues with the program itself and the charity that would oversee the work, Trudeau’s close links to the organization raised more than a few red flags. His wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is an ambassador to the charity. His mother, Margaret Trudeau, earned speaking fees of some $250,000 for WE events between 2016 and 2020. And his younger brother, Alexandre, was paid $32,000 for eight events in 2017-18.

Likewise, two of Morneau’s daughters were involved in the charity, and the minister himself went on two junkets – Ecuador and Kenya – with them.

In light of the conflict of interest, the government contract was cancelled, but the controversy has legs, not blowing over as Trudeau would have liked. There had been calls for the heads of both Morneau and Trudeau. That’s one down, but will it be enough to quell the unrest?

Trudeau has less wiggle room, both because this isn’t his first trip before the ethics commissioner and because he heads a minority government. He has to consider the opposition more than he would in a majority situation.

Whether the WE Charity deal was a form of self-dealing or a poor decision given the bad optics hardly matters to Trudeau’s opponents, but motivation does matter in the public’s judgment of his actions. We’ve generally been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It’s not as though Trudeau isn’t aware that his actions would be scrutinized for ethical lapses.

A 2017 report from then-ethics commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau contravened the Conflict of Interest Act in accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island. And in 2019, current commissioner Mario Dion found another such lapse over the SNC Lavalin affair.

In the latter, more troubling case, Trudeau was under scrutiny for allegations the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould, at the time justice minister and attorney general, to essentially drop charges against SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering and construction firm.

Equally troubling, the way to circumvent the criminal charges related to bribery of government officials in Libya – and not Lavalin’s first rodeo – was a so-called “remediation agreement” inserted under the radar as part of the 2018 budget omnibus bill. The new option allows a company pay fines to compensate for any wrongdoings, without admitting to such wrongdoings, facing a trial or legal convictions. That was no coincidence, as Lavalin appears to have lobbied the government heavily to include that option in the Criminal Code.

The WE Charity issue only adds to our mistrust. While he’s avoided the kinds of egregious missteps we’ve seen in the past, Trudeau can only remain teflon-coated for so long. Ethical lapses serve only to undermine our faith in politics and politicians.

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