Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/7/2020 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he is sorry for failing to recuse himself from a cabinet meeting at which a $19.5-million contract was approved for WE Charity to administer a $900-million federal program.

The apology, whether genuine or feigned, is part of what has become a pattern for the prime minister, who has been at the centre of a number of ethics breaches since winning office in 2015: at first, he denies allegations of wrongdoing, arguing his actions were meant to promote some greater good; once his misdeeds are exposed, he attributes them to a lapse of judgment, apologizes and sheepishly vows not to do it again.

Mr. Trudeau’s ethics and judgment are under scrutiny once again, this time over a contract given to a charity with ties to his family. The prime minister’s mother, brother and wife have all been paid by WE Charity for various speaking engagements over the years. Mr. Trudeau said he "made a mistake" by not recusing himself from the cabinet meeting where that contract was approved. As with past apologies, the prime minister only expressed regret after his wrongdoing was made public.

Does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have a blind spot when it comes to ethics? (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have a blind spot when it comes to ethics? (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Saying "sorry" and asking Canadians (again) for forgiveness is not enough. These lapses occur far too frequently, raising questions about whether the prime minister has a blind spot when it comes to ethics. He behaves as if he’s entitled to skirt the law or ignore standards of conduct, as long as he doesn’t get caught. He’s now facing his third investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.

The decisions related to the WE Charity contract were not minor lapses of judgment; they appear to violate the federal government’s procurement rules, including the bypassing of the normal competitive-bid process, even before the contract reached cabinet for final approval. The agreement to administer a student volunteer grant program was awarded to WE Charity as a sole-sourced contract.

In most cases, federal contracts are awarded through requests for proposals. Sole-sourced contracts can be awarded under certain well-defined circumstances, but they are the exception, not the rule. There appears to have been no legitimate reason for bypassing the bid-solicitation process in this case.

Mr. Trudeau argues it was the public service that recommended the sole-sourced contract — an assertion that most assuredly requires further examination. Canadians deserve to know how that decision was made, by whom and whether there was any political interference.

The prime minister’s apology doesn’t address those questions.

The ethics commissioner’s investigation — which has been expanded to include Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who also has family ties to the charity and who also failed to recuse himself from cabinet discussions — should provide Canadians with some answers. But the matter should also be scrutinized at a parliamentary committee, as has been demanded by opposition parties.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argues it was the public service that recommended the sole-sourced contract — an assertion that requires further examination. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argues it was the public service that recommended the sole-sourced contract — an assertion that requires further examination. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

All those involved in the decision-making process for the WE Charity contract should be summoned to testify, including senior public servants, relevant ministers and the prime minister.

If Mr. Trudeau has nothing to hide and believes he has adequately addressed his latest lapse in judgment, then he should have no problem testifying at committee. He can explain to Canadians why he felt it acceptable at the time not to recuse himself from the cabinet discussion and why he agreed to a sole-sourced contract. The committee can review federal procurement rules and scrutinize whether bypassing the normal competitive-bid process was appropriate.

There’s far more to this issue that needs to be investigated. Saying "sorry" — again — doesn’t end it.