THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 45, Season 9
Sunday, July 12, 2020
Host: Robin Gill
Guests: Arif Virani, Michael Barrett, Don Davies,
Journalist Panel: Supriya Dwivedi, David Akin,
Location: Vancouver, B.C.
Robin Gill: This week on The West Block: the WE Charity controversy and the Trudeau family.
Dawna Friesen, Global News Anchor: “The charity, WE, was awarded a $900 million federal contract without any competition.”
Robin Gill: Plus, the growing calls from the opposition for the prime minister to explain.
Michael Barrett, Conservative—Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes: “We get a different answer from the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Robin Gill: And, cornering China.
Colin Robertson, China Expert: “Keeping the pressure on, as we are, through various intermediaries.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Cease the arbitrary detention of these two Canadian citizens.”
Robin Gill: It’s Sunday. I’m Robin Gill in Vancouver, and you’re watching The West Block from the West Coast.
We begin the show with the ethics scandal engulfing the prime minister. This week, we learned family members of Justin Trudeau, profited from speaking engagements with WE Charity. WE was awarded a $900 million federal contract without any competition to handle student grants. The contract was pulled after intense criticism about how it was awarded. The charity says it paid Margaret Trudeau, the prime minister’s mother, about $250 thousand for approximately 28 speaking engagements. It also paid Alexandre Trudeau, the prime minister’s brother, $32 thousand for eight appearances. WE says the prime minister’s wife was paid $1,400 for one event and has volunteered for many others.
The prime minister, for his part, has insisted that the WE Charity was the only program in the country that could administer a nationwide student volunteer program. He has also said he did not recuse himself from any discussions at cabinet about the program.
Unidentified speaker: “Why not?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I have long worked on youth issues, both as before I got into politics and since I’ve been in politics as youth critic, getting young people involved in serving their country, recognizing their desire to build a better Canada, particularly through this time of crisis, is something that I believe in deeply.”
Robin Gill: Joining us now to talk more about this is Arif Virani, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minster of Justice and Attorney General. Michael Barrett is a Conservative Member of Parliament from Ontario, and Don Davies, the NDP MP representing the riding of Vancouver—Kingsway.
Arif, let’s start with you. The prime minister says this is not a conflict of interest, yet his mother, wife, brother all received speaking fees.
Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General: So, I think we’ve got a situation where we have an extremely important program that’s part of a whole host of benefit programs, and income security that we’ve rolled out for people across every demographic. So that’s the first point. I don’t think anyone takes issue with the fact that assisting students in terms of whether they have job placement or volunteer placements, but giving them some financial stability is a good, important goal and public objective during the pandemic. The way the program is rolled out, obviously, has been disappointing. It has not gone the way it should have gone. We acknowledge that, the prime minister acknowledges that. What we now have is an ethics commissioner investigation that is about to commence. The prime minister has indicated he’s willing to comply with all aspects of that investigation, and we’ve also got a finance committee investigation that has started on the parliamentary side. We are willing to comply with this because I think it’s important in terms of the transparency of the process. But again, the original decision was a departmental decision that was made and then brought to cabinet, and that decision was then ratified by the cabinet. And the prime minister, in terms of his lifelong commitment to young people as an educator and now as prime minister, as a previous minister of youth, feels that he was completely valid in terms of maintaining his position at the cabinet table when the decision was being taken.
Robin Gill: But Arif, why didn’t he recuse himself from cabinet meetings?
Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General: Well I think the ultimate determination about that and the ultimate conclusion on that is something that Mario Dion will find as a by-product of the ethics investigation itself. There has been concern expressed about monetary payments flowing to members of the prime minister’s family. What the prime minister said quite clearly is that himself and Sophie Grégoire had not received monies. It has come to light that his mother and his brother have received monies. And as I’ve indicated previously to other representatives of the media, that we know that Margaret Trudeau, in particular, is herself a public personality. She’s a very outspoken leader on mental health issues, has speaking engagements around the country, indeed probably in different countries around the planet. The prime minister’s not privy to all of the tos-and-fros of what his mother is or is not engaging on, nor whether she’s receiving financial compensation. But the other thing I would point out and I think it’s important for your viewers, is that traditional conflict of interest analysis is looking at when there’s some community gain that’s being procured, but usually in a business setting. This is a not-for-profit organization that we used—we were proposing to use to administer a program, and it’s unlike—it’s very similar to many other programs we’ve rolled out during the pandemic. So when we rolled out money for food banks, we used entities like Daily Bread and second Harvest to help administer those funds. When we rolled out money to help community agencies, we used Sell and Trade, and the United Way. It was indifferent in this context. The party that was chosen was WE Canada, and that was again, a recommendation by the department officials at ESDC.
Robin Gill: But we know that Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s daughter was also involved with WE. Did he recuse himself at cabinet?
Arif Virani, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General: So I understand that information has recently come to light. I’m not aware of whether Minister Morneau recused himself at the cabinet table, so perhaps you’d have to pose that question directly to Minister Morneau.
Robin Gill: Michael, can we talk to you now about this? Is an ethics investigation enough on this or do you think that there needs to be more?
Michael Barrett, Conservative Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes: Conservatives are calling for the police to take a look at this case. We believe that there are sufficient grounds here for them to take a look at the criminal code and take a look at the events that have been unfolding over the last two weeks. Look, we have a nearly $1 billion sole source contract being awarded to an organization with direct ties to the Liberal Party of Canada and to the family of Justin Trudeau and ties to him himself. But yesterday, and in the past few days, we’ve learned that there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash given from this organization to members of the prime minister’s family and that’s what makes this different than any of the other programs that Arif mentioned. Those programs weren’t awarded to—those contracts were awarded to organizations that were paying members of the prime minister’s family, sums of money that are incomprehensible to most everyday Canadians, getting speaking fees in the terms of thousands of dollars per hour.
And with respect to the program and the importance of this program, it’s a redundant or parallel program to one already exists. The federal professional Public Service administers the Canada Summer Jobs program every year. All kinds of jobs are approved. The program never has enough money. Conservatives called for funding to be doubled, get more students into all kinds of great opportunities, including at charities, including at not-for-profits and museums and public sector and private sector employment opportunities. But that’s not what we went with here. This was a handpicked organization with direct ties to the prime minister and his family, and we’ve been learning about additional members of the federal cabinet who have family ties to this organization as well and we’re hearing that they didn’t recuse themselves from the decision-making process, which is entirely inappropriate.
Robin Gill: Don, do you think that there should be a criminal investigation? And should the prime minister step aside while the ethics investigation takes place?
Don Davies, Vancouver—Kingsway: Well, I’m not so sure that we’re at the point where we can go that far. But what I will say, is first of all, let’s say what this isn’t about. This isn’t about the importance of helping young people. It’s not about questioning anybody’s commitment with young people. What the issue here is one of dishonesty and unethical behaviour. Let’s start with the unethical behaviour. Everybody knows that you shouldn’t give out an untendered sole source contract with a billion dollars to an organization that your family members have received money from. If any of your viewers put themselves in that situation and thought well, if your boss came and said here’s a billion dollars, I want you to go out and find a good supplier for our business and it turned out that you didn’t find any other organizations. You didn’t put out a tender, you didn’t get any estimates and it turned out that the organization you chose paid your mother and your brother, money. I think your average person would see what’s wrong with that. Let’s look at the dishonesty’s. WE said that the PMO contacted them. Then when the Liberals denied that, WE reversed themselves. WE said they never paid any Trudeau family members. They reversed themselves when contrary information came to light. Prime Minister Trudeau said that neither he nor his family had ever been paid. Now we find out that compensation was paid to his mother and brother and potentially even his wife. And now we hear the prime minister saying that no other organization in the country could have done this, which is clearly not the case. And when pressed to name other organizations that they considered, he won’t do so. So, you know, the fact that they withdrew so quickly on this, tells me that there’s a lot of nervousness on behalf of the Liberal party. They know what they did is wrong and this is the third time that Prime Minister Trudeau, in the last five years, has got himself into conflict of interest issues, twice being found guilty. So, I think this is a serious matter and we’re talking about a billion dollars of taxpayers’ dollars that should have been distributed through the Public Service, which did an excellent job doing that through CERB, so I don’t see why they would have departed from that very successful model.
Robin Gill: And that has been the ongoing question. Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time.
Coming up, our journalist panel on the WE scandal engulfing the prime minister. Also ahead, we’ll speak to the former prime minister of Australia, a country that’s also pushing back on Beijing. The West Block is coming to you from Vancouver today. We’re back in a moment. Stay with us.
Robin Gill: Welcome back to The West Block. We’re continuing our discussion on the WE Charity controversy that is engulfing the prime minister and members of his family. Let’s bring in Global News political commentator Supriya Dwivedi and Global National’s David Akin.
Supriya, let’s start with you. How bad does this look for the prime minister?
Supriya Dwivedi, Global News political commentator: Well, I think the worst part about this is that this is yet another own goal that the prime minister has scored, basically on himself. Irrespective of whether or not, you know, what the findings are from the ethics commissioner, I think on the face of this, for your average regular person, they would say that there’s an appearance of a conflict here and that is really ultimately all that matters. If there’s an appearance of a conflict, then the right thing to have done in the situation would have been to recuse yourself from, you know, those decision-making processes and that clearly, wasn’t done.
Robin Gill: David, the opposition is asking for a criminal investigation. How realistic is that?
David Akin, Global National journalist: Probably unrealistic, but there are some other important investigations going on. Obviously, the one from parliament’s ethics commissioner is underway and need I remind everybody this is not the first, nor the second but the third time that the ethics commissioner has had to interview the prime minister about his activities while he was prime minister. And of course, the other two times he was found to have broken conflict of interest allegation—or acts. And in addition to that, we may see the auditor general also want to take a look at this, and there are now two, not one but two House of Commons committees that also want to interview people from WE, want to interview in the PMO and more importantly, interview some cabinet ministers. And I should note, those House of Commons committees, when they decided to do this investigation it was unanimous, which means Liberals on those committees want to know what the heck’s going on here.
Robin Gill: Supriya, the prime minister’s spokesperson says that his relatives have various organizations and their own causes. Is that a way to justify this?
Supriya Dwivedi, Global News political commentator: So it’s definitely fair to say that the prime minister clearly isn’t responsible for whatever, you know, his mother and brother decide to do and whatever, you know, organizations that they want to speak for, whatever speaker fees that they want to get, but that’s not really the issue here. The issue here is that there was a sole source contract to an organization that the prime minister clearly had ties to, and the finance minister by the way, had ties to through one of his daughters and one of the founders of the WE organization as well as, I believe, his other daughter is currently working for the organization. So there’s a whole lot here in which this probably should have been hunted down, and not only the prime minster but the finance minister should have recused himself from any cabinet decisions going forward.
David Akin, Global National journalist: I just want to say I agree with Supriya that sure, the family can do what they want, but one key question now is you can’t separate the fact that the family benefitted financially: wife, mother, brother. Did the cabinet, when it signed off on its sole source contract, did the cabinet know about these financial relationships because now the judgement issue, it’s not just the prime minister’s, it’s Bill Morneau, Chrystia Freeland, Navdeep Bains, Bardish Chagger, all those allies of the prime minister who sit in cabinet. Did they ask the prime minister some questions about his relationship to WE? And did he disclose the fact that by the way, mom, brother and wife all got cheques from WE. That’s really important stuff.
Robin Gill: David, from your context, who really pulled the contract in the end? Was it WE or was it the government? There seems to be conflicting views on that.
David Akin, Global National journalist: Yes. And there’s been conflicting narratives from both WE and from the Prime Minister’s Office throughout this. So, we don’t really know. We’re going to have to wait to see the paperwork. WE said it withdrew, the prime minister in his Rideau Cottage presser said it was by mutual consent. But don’t forget, WE once, we saw that videotape with Craig Keilburger saying yeah, it was the PMO who phoned me up. And then he had to put a—sort of walk that one back and say oh, I misspoke. It was somebody else. And then we see with these revelations about the payments to the Trudeau’s. They didn’t disclose those earlier because of some accounting issue and we made a mistake. So there are credibility issues on all sides here. And no, we really don’t know how that contract ended up getting spiked.
Robin Gill: Supriya, at the end of the day the opposition is asking the prime minister step aside for this ethics investigation. How realistic is that given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic? And who wants to bring down the government in the middle of a pandemic?
Supriya Dwivedi, Global News political commentator: Yeah, I mean I think extremely unrealistic here. And I think this has been an issue with the opposition throughout, you know, the scandals that David was referring to earlier, is that they often overplay their hand here. I think there’s definitely a story to be, you know, pursued and there is a line for the opposition to run. I think Yves-François Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc, probably had the best line in that he said he should step aside while the investigation is taking place. But even that, I mean we are in the middle of a pandemic and I can’t imagine your average, regular Canadian voter really has a lot of appetite for calls to resignation right now.
Robin Gill: David, we were talking about the fact that the Public Service has suggested this, that it was their idea. In the end, the Public Service should be running this, shouldn’t it?
David Akin, Global National journalist: Well the Public Service is running it. I mean that—this sort of goes to the lie that the prime minister gave us all through this that WE is the only one, it’s the only organization that is capable of running it. Well actually sir, your own government is because they’re the ones now running it. Albeit, it doesn’t sound right now like it’s a finely tuned machine, there’s a lot of confusion. But the federal government is in fact, now running it. And even more so, I’m going to rely on some reporting from, I think, the Globe and Mail on this one, there are a lot of charities in Canada that once this contract was still in WE’s hands was saying WE is not that kind of charity to run this kind of thing. You need to have a charity that’s absolutely networked throughout Canada that can quickly place students into vacant positions in the charitable sector. That’s now WE; they’re not built to do that. And sure, we saw WE get in trouble. They were going to have bounties given to teachers to recruit students. That had all sorts of problems on it, so WE wasn’t the right organization. And, some of these charities were putting their hands in and saying actually, we can do that. We are built, actually, to match people up. And yet the government, for some reason, believed, whoever it was going to be, that WE was the only game in town. They’re not. And we know that now because the Feds are doing it.
Robin Gill: Supriya, what about the students here who need the money for tuition? They seem to be losing out on this. Time is running out, the summer is very short.
Supriya Dwivedi, Global News political commentator: Yeah, they are. And of course, you know, this isn’t a normal summer, right? So even if this were normal circumstances, my heart would go out to students that are trying to scrounge enough money for the fall. And now with the pandemic, of course a lot of those opportunities just simply aren’t there. So yeah, they’re really the real losers in all of this, unfortunately.
Robin Gill: Supriya, David, thank you so much for your time.
Up next, we speak to Australia’s former leader about a possible way out of the Meng Wanzhou crisis.
Robin Gill: Welcome back. Last week, Australia announced it’s cancelling its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, a move the Canadian government made a week earlier. But Australia, like Britain, went one step further. It will make it easier for Hong Kong residents to stay in Australia.
Joining us to talk more about the growing pushback against Beijing is Kevin Rudd. He was Australia’s prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and then again in 2013. Mr. Rudd is now a leading international voice on China. He joins us from Sydney, Australia.
Mr. Rudd, how would you describe the relationship between Australia and China? And how do you see this playing out?
Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister: Look, structurally what’s happening because of China’s more assertive foreign policy around the world, is that it’s not just Canada that’s singled out. It’s not just Australia that’s singled out. Frankly, it’s many, many democracies around the world. If we were having this discussion in Sweden at the moment, we’d have a similar conversation. So what has changed structurally is that China is now pushing out with a much more assertive foreign policy, a much more strident foreign policy across the board, and as a result, we all find ourselves with similar degrees of structural difficulty.
Robin Gill: Last week, Australia’s department of foreign affairs warned Australian’s living in China or planning to travel there that they could arbitrarily be detained. Do you think China will start doing this?
B Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister: Well, everyone in the world is very mindful of your Canadian Michaels, both of them. And I follow this case very closely. I’m a student of China, and I speak Chinese. I’ve lived in Beijing before ever going into political office, and so I’m very mindful of the circumstances of these two individuals. And, it now being, what? A year and a half or more down the track, this is a salutary warning, I think, to all western democracies about crossing swords with China on core questions of their national interest. So therefore, while I’m not privy to the intelligence community because I’m out of office, and what it’s saying, there are prudent levels of concern now on the part of many countries about their national’s wellbeing within China, either as tourists, as travellers, as students, or as business people. And the sooner we can see the release of the two Michaels, the better for them, better for Canada, better for the world.
Robin Gill: China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Beijing has already threatened economic retaliation in light of the response to its clampdown on Hong Kong. Given China’s economic dominance, what should Canada’s response be, in your view, when it comes to responding to this?
Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister: Well, the truth of the matter is, I think, observing from afar, the Trudeau government has done practically all they can. You see, ultimately this boils down to the state of the U.S-China relationship. You guys in Canada have become the meat in the geo-political sandwich between the two of them. And because of that, these two individuals have now been incarcerated. Of course, this all goes back to the Madam Meng matter and Huawei, and her father, Ren Zhengfei, and the entire elite structure of Chinese domestic politics. And so on your core question, is how is this unblocked? Frankly, the action lies with the U.S. judicial authorities. And my argument would simply be this: look, on the matter which Madam Meng is currently arraigned for, which deals with ultimately, the implementation of U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran and whether Huawei or one of its subsidiaries has violated those sanctions and being transparent with its financial institutions that it’s dealing with about that. If the United States is going to continue to treat this as a criminal matter, then guess what? The extradition procedures with Canada will continue to unfold, whereas wisdom may lie in the United States doing what I believe it’s done in similar cases in the past, which is to regard this not as a criminal but as a civil matter. And therefore, if it’s resolved as a civil matter before the courts, then it would result in some very large fine being administered to the corporation concerned. I’m not fully familiar with the case law here, but I understand that there are precedents for the way in which this can be handled. So the ball lies in the U.S. DOJs court.
Robin Gill: As you know, China detained and charged two Canadians: Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with espionage. Our prime minister says this is hostage diplomacy in response to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou here in Vancouver. What can Canada do to free the two Michaels?
Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister: Well, I don’t believe that’s possible under Canadian law. You Canadians, like we Australians, believe in something old-fashioned called the rule of law, and we actually believe in the integrity of our longstanding extradition treaties and therefore, we’re obliged to operate under those, under the terms of the law. But, the extradition matter itself in Canada concerning Madam Meng, and therefore the retaliatory actions taken in relation to the two Michaels, ultimately proceeds from a discretionary decision by the United States Department of Justice, and frankly, I think the Trump administration has some questions to answer as to how they have handled this themselves.
Robin Gill: Mr. Rudd, thank you so much for your time.
Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister: Good to be with you.
Robin Gill: That is all the time we have for today. Thank you for joining us on The West Block from the West Coast. I’m Robin Gill. Have a great week.