Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not testify before the parliamentary ethics committee to face questioning over his family’s trips to the Aga Khan’s private island in December 2016.
The House ethics committee, in a special meeting convened Tuesday, voted 6-3 against to a motion by Conservative Party ethics critic Peter Kent to ask the prime minister to face questioning. But opposition members of the committee still want answers after ethics commissioner Mary Dawson found that Trudeau contravened four sections of federal conflict-of-interest laws.
Dawson tabled The Trudeau Report on December 20, which found that “the vacations accepted by Mr. Trudeau or his family might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau.”
Trudeau is the first sitting prime minister to be found to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act since it was passed in 2006, after taking several private vacations to the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian islands between 2014 and 2017.
The vote means it’s unlikely that Trudeau will have to elaborate much on the report, and that opposition members will be left with a number of unanswered questions — including what was discussed in private meetings between Trudeau and the Aga Khan. Opposition questioning on the conflict-of-interest violations will be limited to Question Period. That will limit the fallout for Trudeau, but will bolster accusations that his government isn’t living up to its promise to be more transparent.
'Conflicts of interest'
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, vice-chair on the committee, said that “the report speaks for itself,” and voted against Kent’s motion, adding that “the opposition will have every opportunity to ask questions in question period.”
NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen, who is a vice-chair on the committee, pointed out that Dawson’s findings were particularly troubling since the Liberals have pitched themselves as a departure from the opaque nature of the Harper era government. The reality, he said, is that the situation has gotten worse.
“This government came in on a mandate that they would improve accountability and transparency, and my concern is that it’s gone in the opposite direction,” said Cullen.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, called the Aga Khan scandal "a layer cake of conflicts of interests," and said that it is a further erosion of the promise of transparency and accountability that, in part, helped elevate the Liberals to government in 2015.
“With Trudeau, and the cash-for-access events, and then the trip he wasn’t initially truthful about, all of these things chip away at the trust,” said Conacher. “Where it shows up is in the response to what you do next, and just overall questions about your integrity. That is devastating to any politician.”
The brunt of that damage will fall on Trudeau, said Conacher. Despite the Liberals’ campaign promise that they would require transparency to be “a fundamental principle across the federal government,” little has been done to actually achieve that.
“He hasn’t done it,” said Conacher. "Not for himself, [and] he hasn’t required anyone else to do it. He’s tried to excuse every unethical thing that’s happened."
Speaking on CBC Radio in Halifax earlier in the day, Trudeau himself dismissed the suggestion that he should appear before the committee. “We have an ethics commissioner that is above partisan politics,” he told Don Connolly. “As I said, I’m happy to work with the ethics commission, keeping politics and partisan attacks to the side on this.”
Curiously, Trudeau himself has not always shown such an allergy to the political role of the ethics committee. In a 2013 campaign letter, he wrote that “Mr. Harper and his party have brought politics to a new, nasty low in this country, and it is catching up with them,” referencing Conservative MPs blocking the Liberals’ attempt to force Harper to testify before the Senate ethics committee in 2013. “One by one, every single Conservative M.P. voted to help the Prime Minister cover up his involvement, and that of his senior staff,” Trudeau wrote.
Conservative ethics critic Kent said he was “disappointed” by the vote. “It’s not good enough to say he’ll answer questions at town halls across the country. He is responsible to answer to parliamentarians, and I would think particularly in this case,” said Kent.
The committee will reconvene on Wednesday to question Dawson and to debate measures that could prevent this sort of scandal from being repeated.
Concerns continue to be raised about the new ethics commissioner Mario Dion, who was selected without consultation from opposition parties.
“I don’t think they could’ve chosen a worse guy,” Conacher from Democracy Watch said of the new ethics commissioner.