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John Ivison: With Trudeau it's always repent, rinse, and repeat

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, July 13, 2020.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, July 13, 2020.

There is a familiar rhythm to Justin Trudeau’s leadership – he commits a cardinal error of judgment, offers a misty-eyed admission of guilt, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

The current controversy over the awarding of a $900 million contract to the WE Charity has the usual cadence – and there is no reason to think in the short term it will prove any more consequential to Trudeau’s fortunes than past misdemeanours.

The prime minister emerged from Rideau Cottage on Monday morning and acknowledged journalists wanted to talk about the WE Charity story but first, like an octopus squirting ink to confuse predators, he mentioned the wage subsidy will be extended until December; that he’d just talked to President Donald Trump about trade and China, and that there would soon be news about the “safe restart” program with the provinces.

The baying press pack was not shaken off the scent and Trudeau was obliged to return to the sole source contract his government awarded to WE to administer the Canada Student Services Grant program. That decision has since been reversed, in light of revelations that Trudeau did not recuse himself from the process, even though his family fortunes are intertwined with those of the charity.

Trudeau said he made a mistake in not recusing himself, given his family history. He said he is frustrated that young people will now have to wait longer to access the program. “But it’s on me – I shouldn’t have been involved,” he said.

It was yet another “teachable moment.” Yet Trudeau never seems to learn.

The prime minister’s career in politics is lousy with examples of occasions when his acumen has deserted him.

Back in 2012, as “Justin Trudeau, MP”, he charged the Ontario Public Service Employees Union $20,000 for a speech, while his parliamentary colleagues from the NDP and Conservative Party spoke for free. As NDP MP Charlie Angus said, he’d just given a speech and received a baseball cap and a coffee mug. “This is not a side business. It’s what I’m expected to do,” he said.

The prime minister’s ability to inflict wounds on the Liberal Party has provoked exasperation in caucus.

“This raised so many flags – you could see it from a mile away,” said one frustrated Liberal MP.

He wondered at the lack of adult supervision in the Prime Minister’s Office and around the Cabinet table when Trudeau pushed the idea of WE receiving the contract.

The Liberal leader admitted during his press conference that he and “other people” expressed reservations about the family connection during the Cabinet discussion, after receiving what the prime minister called the public service’s independent recommendation to go with WE.

That is a profoundly dispiriting statement that suggests this Cabinet is short of either gumption or grit.

The one lesson the prime minister and his team have learned from past public embarrassments is that donning a hair shirt is the best response. Not only did Trudeau apologize for not removing himself from the decision-making process, so did Bill Morneau, the finance minister, whose daughter works for WE.

The cleansing power of contrition became apparent the night the blackface scandal broke during the fall election, Trudeau sounded defensive during the impromptu press conference on his campaign plane. “If everyone going to stand for office has to demonstrate every step of their lives, there is going to be a shortage of people running for office,” he said.

It was the wrong thing to say. There were internal discussions among the campaign team about the wisdom of sending him out to beg forgiveness. But the next day, he emerged into the Old Market Square in Winnipeg to pay penance. It proved a pivotal moment in the campaign and within a few days, “blackface” had fallen off the media’s agenda.

Are things likely to be different this time around? Probably not.

New details will add oxygen to the fire. I find it astonishing, bordering on unbelievable, that the public service volunteered the opinion that it could not manage this nearly $1 billion program and that it should be sub-contracted to the private sector. If the prime minister’s assertion on this matter proves to be less than concordant with the facts, he will be in much more trouble than he is right now.

But, absent incriminating new evidence, the story is set to peter out as Canadians head to the cottage.

Having seen this movie before, to the point where they can recite the script, some caucus members are concerned

Trudeau was asked whether he is prepared to appear before a parliamentary committee examining the issue and said with a straight face that he will look at any invitations. It’s possible he might appear – improbable things happen all the time. But this probably won’t.

The investigation by the ethics commissioner may be more concerning for the prime minister. Mario Dion may hand down his latest report – Trudeau III – just as the Liberals are planning a spring election. Trudeau’s statement that he should have recused himself is as good as an admission that he breached section 21 of the Conflict of Interest Act, that requires office holders to step away from any discussion or decision that would create a conflict.

The prime minister has weathered scathing decisions by the ethics commissioner twice in the past.

Enough Canadians have bought into his explanation that his intentions were good – that, in this case, he got carried away by his enthusiasm for helping youth.

But having seen this movie before, to the point where they can recite the script, some caucus members are concerned.

“We’ve done a decent job rolling out programs and getting money to businesses and to people who need CERB. At the same time, we’re going into our third election with the same leader,” said one MP.

“With another ethics investigation, at some point Canadians might get a little tired and want to clean things up. It worries me.”

Another Liberal MP pronounced himself “disgusted” but thought only a quarter or so of his colleagues would be prepared to express concern, never mind ask the “real question” – who should take over? “I think we could win the next election with the deputy PM (Chrystia Freeland), if we go early,” the MP said.

The deep slumber of decided opinion still supports Trudeau. His approval rating has slipped five points since the story broke, according to the Angus Reid Institute. It is still at 50 per cent, far above the 35 per cent approval when he was re-elected last fall.

But how long can he maintain his reputation as a straight shooter when he is repeatedly found guilty of breaking the law?

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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