Chris Selley: Despite the WE scandal, Liberals know losing Trudeau only leaves a black hole
One of the most memorable moments of the federal Liberal government’s ongoing catastro-WE was the rediscovery of a three-year-old video , produced for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, depicting a mysteriously rotating upper body of Justin Trudeau superimposed over this country’s cities, mountains, oceans and amber waves of grain. The music is inspiring, ethereal. The man is a colossus, the viewer understands. His people are grateful. The land is strong. Kim Jong Un might consider it insufficiently fawning, but praise it as a good first cut.
“Take the pledge to live WE,” Trudeau says. “Because together, WE are Canada.”
It’s gibberish. Yet the words become truer by the day: With every new contract and co-venture unearthed, it becomes clearer that WE and the Trudeau Liberals might as well have been wings of the same organization. Preparations for our 150th national celebration included Trudeau and the Heritage Ministry asking WE to produce a Canada Day weekend event on Parliament Hill, the National Post’s Christopher Nardi reported Wednesday , at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.18 million.
WE would not tell Colleague Nardi whether Margaret Trudeau was paid for her appearance at that event, which is passing strange, considering it has gone into quite some detail about other payments to clan members — including disclosing what it called a “billing error ” whereby $64,000 made its way from the charitable rather than for-profit arm of the WE organization into Trudeau family accounts.
One can only speculate as to the discrepancy. But the WE empire is certainly in unprecedented damage control mode , running full-page “set the record straight” ads in newspapers, laying off staff by the dozens, announcing a “formal organizational review” by an outside consulting company and, in a statement Wednesday evening, promising to “return to its roots, prioritizing our international development work.” (Hmm, what was it prioritizing before?) It also announced future WE Day events were cancelled given the COVID-19 pandemic.
· John Ivison: The ethics commissioner's key question — was the decked stacked in WE's favour?
· Rex Murphy: When 'sorry' doesn't cut it anymore
But WE is a remarkable global brand that might well survive, even without the Trudeaus. Schools in rich countries are suckers for the Kielburgers’ rah-rah change-the-world slacktivism, and the demand for resumé-building poverty tourism for wealthy teens existed before they came along; they just rather brilliantly monetized it. If anything, if and when WE Days return, they might be better off without the overtly partisan trappings. Some people, including a few brave teachers who have been willing to express misgivings over the years, find the whole premise creepy enough.
Some, however, are wondering whether it’s time for the Liberals to start thinking about life after Justin Trudeau. It would be understandable if his leadership were in jeopardy. The ethics commissioner is commencing his office’s third official investigation into events that could have been avoided had the prime minister simply not done unnecessary things: vacationed on the Aga Khan’s island; inserted himself in the prosecutorial chain of command to “save” 9,000 jobs at SNC-Lavalin that were not in jeopardy; sole-sourced a giant jobs program to his buddies Craig and Marc. This theory holds that Chrystia Freeland is ready and willing and able to take over. And then everything would be, somehow, better.
There doesn’t seem to be much to hang it on. Exactly one MP, Toronto backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, appears willing to put his name to complaints about the Trudeau Gang’s latest easily-avoided snafu, and he’s not being impolite about it . Polling shows little sign that the scandal is leaving a mark on Liberal voting intentions: Canadians seem very grateful for the federal government’s terrible-to-middling performance during the pandemic. “Snap election, Trudeau super-majority” remains a competing Ottawa narrative.
But it’s an intriguing thought: The Justin Trudeau Liberals, without Justin Trudeau — intriguing because it’s basically a black hole. Way back in the Michael Ignatieff era there was this idea that the Liberals would assemble the best minds of various generations and turn themselves into a party that believed in things and behaved as such in government. There was to be a conference in Montreal, modelled on Lester Pearson’s 1960 think-fest in Kingston, Ont. , which spawned various useful ideas including the Canada Pension Plan.
No one remembers much about the 2010 think-fest , which was, coincidentally enough, titled “Canada 150,” because all this “ideas” mumbo jumbo soon became a moot point. Justin finally agreed to run for leader, and he might as well have been unopposed, and it turned out he was really good at doing what Liberals have always believed in: winning.
Get rid of the Trudeau brand, warts and all, and what do you have? Freeland is an impressive person, though she’s also deputy prime minister and was presumably in the cabinet room as this WE disaster was conceived and implemented. You have a couple of very useful and competent veteran ministers in Carolyn Bennett and Marc Garneau. You have some greener ministers who might shine in a less top-down power structure. But mostly you have a flaky centre-left operation that doesn’t know how to do anything better than spend money and broadcast its own self-styled virtue.
Trudeau is damn good at that. Everything suggests he would walk away with an election held next week. Surely it’s unlikely he’s going anywhere he doesn’t want to.
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: cselley