Trudeau’s suspension of Parliament is in fact his desperate attempt to stem corruption probe and save political career
According to Justin Trudeau, this impromptu hiatus was necessary in order for his government to craft a “plan to rebuild a stronger, more resilient Canada” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Liberal Party leader also spun this as a positive, saying that legislators will be able to hold a confidence vote after he outlines his vision in his Throne Speech to Parliament.
There is doubt that the country requires a long-term outlook and response to recover from the pandemic, which has claimed over 9,000 lives and led to a 12% drop in GDP. Given this, a proroguing of parliament – which effectively stops all ongoing parliamentary work until the legislature is reconvened – seems reasonable enough.
However, few believe that this is about a post-covid plan, as much as it is about self-preservation in the wake of a scandal that could cost Trudeau his political career.
And he wouldn’t be the first Canadian leader to wield prorogation for such reasons. His predecessor, Stephen Harper first shut down parliament to stop a coalition of opposition parties, including the Liberals, from toppling his minority government with a non-confidence vote in 2008.
A year later, he once again suspended parliament, with opposition legislators charging that Harper was filibustering an investigation regarding Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, though the Conservative leader cited the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver as the reason.
As a Member of Parliament at the time, Trudeau characterized Harper’s use of prorogation as undemocratic, and his election platform in 2015 explicitly stated he would not use the legislative tool.
“Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not,” read the platform.
However it hasn’t just been Conservatives who have used this mechanism.
In 2002, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien moved to prorogue parliament in order to avoid tabling a report regarding the sponsorship scandal that eventually led to his resignation the following year.
Prorogation is a tried and tested method of delaying, if not stopping the parliament from holding a government or its leaders to task.
Trudeau’s suspension of parliament means the halting of investigations into the CAN$913 Million given to the WE Charity in order to run a student volunteer program.
The charity organization had been approved by Trudeau’s cabinet to oversee a program where students would be provided with volunteer opportunities while also allowing them to receive money towards their education (though at a rate below the minimum wage).
But after an intrepid, independent media outlet broke the news that Trudeau’s mother and brother had been paid in excess of $300,000 for speaking gigs with the WE charity, the allegations of impropriety against the charity and government have mounted.
Further investigations revealed that Trudeau’s cabinet had approved the nearly billion-dollar program without any tendering, meaning the charity was cherry picked to lead the program. Government staff reviewing the program also flagged that they did not see any “evidence to suggest that WE Charities possess the capacity to undertake this work, especially under accelerated timelines,” and also raised “integrity concerns.”
Trudeau’s Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, was found to have accepted paid trips from the organization, and also had a daughter employed at WE. Neither he nor Trudeau declared when they voted in favor of the ill-fated program, which was unceremoniously cancelled in the backlash of the scandal.
The prorogation might have helped slow the parliamentary probe, but it has not stopped the bleeding, with some 5,000 pages of documents related to investigation being released regardless, and the country’s federal police confirming that they are also looking into the affair.
What’s worse for Trudeau, the scandal has already claimed its first victim.
Morneau, one of the most high ranking and longest standing members of Trudeau’s government, resigned from his seat less than 24 hours before the prorogation was announced, setting off a flurry of speculation about divisions within the Liberal Party.
The only saving grace for the Canadian leader at this juncture is the relative weakness of his opponents. The Conservatives are in the middle of a leadership race, while the social democrat NDP have empty coffers after the last election. Neither has been able to capitalize on the scandal, in spite of the poll numbers showing that nearly half of the country would welcome an election if the government broke the law.
So even if Trudeau wins a confidence vote, his own numbers continue to plummet while his challengers – including those inside his party – close in.
Chrystia Freeland has now been appointed to replace Morneau as finance minister, in addition to her role as Deputy Prime Minister. The former foreign minister has been left unscathed in the WE scandal, and her profile continues to rise at the same time as Trudeau’s brand diminishes. Could she be one of the Liberals that Trudeau’s former chief of staff signaled as being “more lethal to Liberals than are any competing partisans”?
Whether there is a ‘House of Cards’ scenario playing out in Ottawa remains to be seen, but it is clear that Justin Trudeau’s image is shakier than ever, and his political legacy will be defined by how this scandal plays out.
All this said, he better make that a hell of a Throne Speech.