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OTTAWA — The Liberals used their majority on the Commons ethics committee to block testimony from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion about his examination of the SNC-Lavalin affair and his conclusion that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act.
Dion was standing by Wednesday, ready to testify immediately by video link if the committee had voted to hear from him. But instead, five of the six Liberals on the committee voted down the motion put forward by the Conservatives. Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith voted with the three opposition MPs, saying he disagreed with Dion’s analysis and wanted to question him.
The Liberals also voted down a second motion from the New Democrats to have Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and senior political aide Ben Chin testify about the SNC-Lavalin affair. A third motion from Conservative MP Lisa Raitt to have a CBC journalist table notes and recordings on whether Trudeau violated cabinet confidentiality in recent book interviews was quickly defeated after concerns over freedom of the press were raised.
Dion released his report last week, and it concluded Trudeau directed a pressure campaign on then-Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody-Wilson Raybould to have her overrule federal prosecutors and allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid a corruption trial.
“The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer,” Dion’s report said.
It concluded Trudeau had broken section nine of the act, which prohibits public office holders from attempting to influence other people “to improperly further another person’s private interests.” In this case, the private interests were those of SNC-Lavalin, the massive Quebec engineering firm.
The Conservatives, New Democrats, and the Green Party all urged the committee to hear Dion’s testimony. Conservative MP Peter Kent described Dion’s finding that Trudeau violated the principle of prosecutorial independence as “unprecedented in Canadian history.”
“I try to approach things in a very non partisan way,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May said. “This is in a lot of way red meat right before an election, and I know that. But something was really wrong here. Something’s deeply wrong here. And I beg my friends around the table to allow Mr. Dion to speak to us.”
Something's deeply wrong here
The opposition MPs noted that Dion had requested, but not received, cabinet confidence waivers that would have allowed nine witnesses to give further testimony. They also said Dion should be able to respond to Trudeau’s assertion that Dion was wrong in some of his conclusions.
“When you’re the prime minister of this country, you’re expected to meet the highest ethical code,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said. “We have the commissioner ready to speak, to respond to the report. His normal function is to come to our committee and present that report.”
The Liberals were unmoved. Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon argued that Trudeau was only ever acting to protect jobs that could be affected by SNC-Lavalin going to trial — though when the Conservatives asked him to table evidence that jobs were truly at risk, MacKinnon had to acknowledge he didn’t have any documents to table. (Dion’s report noted the government had never conducted any study of the economic impacts of the trial.)
MacKinnon pointed to the report Trudeau had commissioned from former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan on whether the attorney general role should be separated from the justice minister role. McLellan’s report did not recommend splitting the roles, but Trudeau has said he’ll consider implementing McLellan’s other recommendations on protecting prosecutorial independence from inappropriate political considerations.
“The only conclusion that I and members of this committee can come to is that the opposition seeks to prolong this process for reasons of politics, reasons of partisan games, and it is for that reason, Mr. Chair that we will be opposing this,” MacKinnon said. Liberal MPs Frank Baylis, Karen McCrimmon, Anita Vandenbeld and Mona Fortier voted with him.
Erskine-Smith, the only Liberal to vote in favour of Dion’s testimony, still argued that the ethics commissioner was wrong to conclude that Trudeau had broken the Conflict of Interest Act.
“In my view, the primary motivation in this instance was to protect the public interest in jobs,” Erskine-Smith said. “The public interest was pursued improperly, but at no time did the prime minister improperly further a private interest. The commissioner is legally wrong. And I would like him to sit right there so he could answer your questions about how he got this analysis completely wrong.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019