John Ivison: Whether Trudeau's testimony worked or not, the winds of change are blowing for Liberals

John Ivison: Whether Trudeau's testimony worked or not, the winds of change are blowing for Liberals

National Post


Jean Chrétien used to tell his cabinet a folksy allegory that suggests how he would have handled the WE affair.

A farmer is covered in cow dung but knows that if he tries to wipe the manure away while fresh, he will spread it all around and make it worse. So he waits until it dries and then brushes it off.

Reprehensible perhaps but that’s how he survived in politics for 40 years.

Justin Trudeau adopted a different approach, agreeing to appear before the House finance committee, while the muck is still moist.

No prime minister in my nearly two decades on Parliament Hill has appeared before a House committee (Stephen Harper once testified before a Senate committee on his reform bill).

More wily operators were aware that no good could come from allowing lowly opposition MPs a free kick at the prime minister.

As a defensive manoeuvre, it is unproven.

But it is a measure of how much trouble Trudeau’s government is in that he believed only he could come to its deliverance. What self-assurance. What swagger.

But the Liberals need a game-changer, and Trudeau clearly believed he could be it.

· Trudeau tells MPs that WE Charity received 'no preferential treatment' from his office
· As Trudeau testifies on WE, ethics commissioner expands probe of Bill Morneau

The verdict is still out on whether he succeeded but he emerged from his 90 minutes before the finance committee relatively unscathed. It’s possible he even convinced some people of his own innocence, beyond the failure to recuse himself from the awarding of a lucrative contribution agreement to the WE Charity.

“I didn’t do anything to influence that – I didn’t even know it had been made until May 8,” he said, by which point the public service was already recommending WE.

A hirsute-looking prime minister said he pulled the WE contract from the cabinet agenda on May 8 because he knew there would be questions asked about his links to WE (it finally went to cabinet on May 22). But he insisted WE received no preferential treatment.

On its own merits, Trudeau might be able to brush off the WE affair without too much muck being spread around.

But political sins, like sweaty feet, rarely come singly.

There are key episodes in the life of every government from which recovery proves elusive.

NDP MP Charlie Angus pointed out that Trudeau has been found guilty of breaking the Conflict of Interest Act twice already and his family’s links to WE’s Kielburger brothers give the public the impression that he does not believe the laws defining political behaviour apply to him.

Angus’ comment highlighted the fact that the problems facing the Trudeau government are cumulative in nature.

As the British author and journalist, Christopher Booker, wrote 50 years ago, there comes a moment when things start to turn against any party in power. “Up to that moment, however many mistakes it makes, however damning the criticism that may be levelled against it, however unpopular it may become, it can sail on serenely,” he wrote in his book The Neophiliacs. “But after that moment, every mistake it makes becomes magnified, indeed blunders multiply, as if feeding on themselves and both outwardly and inwardly the government appears at the mercy of every wind.”

I would contend that the SNC saga was that moment for this Liberal government and that, despite winning the 2019 election, Trudeau’s party has never truly recovered.

Smug Liberals suggest privately that, having weathered SNC, the worst is behind them. That hubris has persuaded them to govern as if they still command a majority – how else to explain the legislative overreach that saw them bring forward a bill in March to spend and borrow without parliamentary approval until December 31, 2021?

But Canadians clearly signaled their impatience with that conceit when they reduced the Liberals to minority government – a circumstance in which parliamentary committees are dominated by opposition MPs who harbour the express intent of diminishing the prime minister’s public standing to that of a children’s entertainer.

Liberal audacity was emboldened by polling in the early days of the pandemic that saw them rise above 40 per cent support. But as one smart Liberal said, that number was “filled with helium”, as Canadians rallied around their government during a crisis. Conservative fears of a snap fall election have since abated, as the WE affair has weighed on Liberal support. Abacus Data suggested the Liberals are now tied with the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and with the effectively leaderless Tories in Ontario. The polls have turned and government approval has fallen 14 points since May because of WE. Trudeau’s personal numbers have also plunged.

This is an example of problems feeding on themselves. Trudeau’s travails have apparently persuaded some ambitious ministers that, while it would be hard to get along without him, perhaps they might try.

The sense of solidarity that characterized the first four years in government is long gone. Insiders talk about feuds and vaulting ambition. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is widely believed to be positioning herself as the next finance minister, should Bill Morneau be forced to spend more time on trips to the developing world with his family. This would, in her eyes at least, be merely a stepping stone, given just 65 per cent of Liberal voters believe Trudeau should lead the party into the next election, according to a new Abacus Data poll.

François-Philippe Champagne, the global affairs minister, is said to have noted the softness of Trudeau’s support and let slip his own leadership ambitions. His defence of the prime minister when he was asked about the WE affair could justifiably be described as half-hearted – or maybe quarter-hearted.

There really are no true friends in politics.

At the centre of this maelstrom is the Prime Minister’s Office, led by Katie Telford, who also appeared before the finance committee on Thursday. Tension is said to exist between PMO and Morneau’s office over the latter’s insistence to appoint Tiff Macklem (over Telford’s preference, Carolyn Wilkins) as governor of the Bank of Canada.

It is the chief of staff’s job to keep her boss out of trouble when it comes to conflicts of interest, yet this is the third occasion that Trudeau has been subject to an investigation by the ethics commissioner on Telford’s watch.

It seems inconceivable that the Liberal Party will go into the next election with the same slate of senior staff and ministers that have blundered so often and left the party at the mercy of their opponents.

The WE affair is convoluted at one level. Was WE really the only organization that could administer the program? But its essence is simple – do voters believe Trudeau’s account, that nothing untoward happened and the government simply approved a volunteer program recommended by the public service; or the Opposition’s contention that a cash-strapped charity with close links to the prime minister and finance minister was bailed out by the government.

At this point, the majority – 57 per cent, according to Abacus – think the Liberals used public money to reward their friends.

Trudeau may have persuaded those still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there are fewer and fewer of those people.

Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith once claimed that all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.

This feels like a government that is starting to splinter and split.

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