WE organization under scrutiny for not registering as lobbyist before pitching proposals to Trudeau Liberals
OTTAWA – The WE organization is coming under new scrutiny over questions as to whether it should have officially registered to lobby the federal government before it pitched two separate programs to the Trudeau government last April.
WE is not listed in the federal lobbying registry. On Friday, Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Michael Barrett wrote the federal commissioner of lobbying, Nancy Bélanger, asking her to investigate if WE had possibly broken the Lobbying Act.
At issue are revelations by a senior bureaucrat at Thursday’s Finance committee meeting that WE sent two “unsolicited” proposals to the federal government. Rachel Wernick, senior assistant deputy minister at the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada, testified that WE first sent a pitch to the government on April 9, proposing the creation of a “social entrepreneurship” program. WE’s second proposal, sent April 22, eventually turned into the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), which the Trudeau government asked WE Charity to implement.
The $900-million CSSG program would pay eligible students in grants up to $5,000 for volunteering their hours over the summer. In exchange, the government was prepared to give WE Charity $43.5 million in fees for overseeing the program. It has since been revealed that members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family have been collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from the WE organization, that WE claimed the prime minister was part of arranging a WE Day event on Parliament Hill with $1 million in federal funding, and that Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughter has been working for WE. The contract with WE has been cancelled.
According to the Lobbying Act, an activity is considered lobbying when someone is paid to communicate with a federal public office holder about receiving contributions or developing federal programs, among other things.
In a statement, the commissioner, Bélanger, confirmed that WE Charity is not registered as a lobbying organization, but would not say if her office had opened an investigation.
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The letter from the Conservative MPs asks the commissioner “whether anyone in the WE organization ought to have registered to lobby public office holders, but failed to do so.”
In a statement, WE Charity assured that it adheres to all rules when it comes to accountability, including those involving lobbying.
“However, not all communications with public officials constitute lobbying or need to be registered. While WE is confident of its compliance, we welcome the role of the Commissioner of Lobbying in clarifying what is a gray area for many organizations, and will assist her in that regard,” WE Charity said in a statement.
The Lobbying Act of Canada demands that an organization registers communications with government if it meets what is referred to as “the 20-per-cent rule”. Basically, if the total amount of time spent working on a preparing or actively lobbying by employees in a defined period is worth at least 20 per cent of the working hours of one employee, they must all register their communications with the government.
“Assuming a five-day work week, an individual would have to lobby the equivalent of one day per week to reach the threshold,” the commissioner’s office explains on its website.
According to Francesco Trebbi, a professor of economics specializing in politics and lobbying at the University of British Columbia, its unlikely that preparing two full proposals for the federal government in a single month required less than 20 per cent of involved employees’ time.
“They have sent essentially two multiple page reports over less than a month. And you can think (if) that took more than four-and-a-half days for a single individual to write down. If that’s the case, they should have registered because essentially they are operating as in-house lobbyists for their own organization,” Trebbi noted.
Friday, the Conservatives also brought forward a motion to the parliamentary ethics committee to begin a third study of the Trudeau government’s handing of the WE Charity deal (after the Finance and the Government Operations committees).
But meeting that was meant to debate the opposition’s request quickly turned into a four-hour filibuster by Liberal MPs, who visibly wanted nothing to do with another inquiry into their government.
Up first was Brenda Shanahan, who stressed that it was not the committee’s role to “investigate politicians and their families” or to sully people’s reputation.
She also questioned if opposition MPs were trying to conduct their own inquiry because they didn’t trust the ethics commissioner to properly conduct his investigations into Trudeau and Morneau.
Then, during another 30-minute monologue, Liberal MP Elisabeth Brière discussed the Greek origins of the word “democracy”, quoted extensively from the works of 19 ^th century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville and concluded by saying that the committee should not let partisanship interfere with its mandate.
Brière was followed by Greg Fergus, who struggled to pronounce a Latin proverb he then discussed for a short while, casually mentioned that he was subscribed to the House of Commons’ Hansard when he was only 14 years old, and argued that the opposition motions were a “fishing expedition”.
Eventually, the tactic got under the skin of NDP and Conservative MPs.
“As someone with many years of experience in filibustering, one must bring new material to the table and not just repeat content from another MP,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said at one point to Greg Fergus. “I love the stuff about ancient Athens, if he wants to talk about Sparta, he can talk about other things too.”
After three hours of filibuster, Shanahan tried to move a first motion to end the meeting, much to the displeasure of Conservative MP Michael Barrett. Eventually, MPs agreed to adjourn the meeting until next week.
“It’s laid bare for everyone to see that the Liberals have attempted to filibuster this committee. Miss Shanahan has demonstrated a Liberal cover up. You talked (down) the clock … and now you don’t want to deal with any of this committee’s business. For shame,” Conservative MP Michael Barrett declared to Shanahan.
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