“Why hasn’t Justin Trudeau fired him?” Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre asked at a Thursday media conference. “Bill Morneau has been hiding this secret for years.”
The Conservatives said Morneau broke the law when he accepted $41,366 in travel expenses covered by WE Charity during private trips he and his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017.
“When we have the minister of finance accepting illegal travel, … accepting a trip worth more than Canadians earn as an annual salary, sorry does not cut it,” Conservative MP Michael Barrett added.
Morneau appeared before the House of Commons finance committee Wednesday, which is investigating the Liberal government’s decision to give WE Charity a contract to run a $912-million student grant program.
The minister said he had written the cheque earlier that day to cover the costs of expenses WE paid. He told the committee he had always intended to pay back the money.
The finance minister said he only discovered the travel expenses during “a thorough review of my records over the course of the last few days.”
“This should’ve been something that we rectified sooner. It was absolutely an error. In looking through my records, I was completely surprised by the situation,” Morneau told the committee. “I’m not making an excuse. It was my mistake.”
In a statement following Morneau’s testimony, WE said those trips were always meant to be complimentary — part of a practice of showing donors WE’s work to encourage them to give more.
“This was a free trip,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper said during Thursday’s media conference. “WE never provided Mr. Morneau with an invoice. Mr. Morneau never sought or inquired for an invoice. It’s time that the minister of finance does the only thing that is left to do, and that is resign as minister.”
Ministers and parliamentary secretaries are forbidden to accept a benefit, such as sponsored travel.
Did Morneau break the law?
The Conservatives are calling on Morneau to resign, citing Section 11 and 23 of the Conflict of Interest Act.
Section 11 of the Conflict of Interest Act says MPs or other public office holders or their families cannot accept gifts “that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”
The Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner defines a gift (or other advantage) as money, service, property or use of property “that is provided without charge or at less than its commercial value.”
Section 23 states that if “total value of all gifts or other advantages accepted by a reporting public office holder or a member of his or her family exceeds $200 from any one source other than relatives and friends in a 12-month period, the reporting public office holder shall disclose the gifts or other advantages to the commissioner within 30 days.”
Stephanie Plante, director at the Centre for Security, Intelligence, and Defence Studies at the University of Carleton, said it’s difficult to say if Morneau violated the Act.
The fact that Morneau received the money three years ago but then paid it back Wednesday, produces some grey area.
“We’ve never had this situation before, as the Act is less than 10 years old,” she said. “But Morneau’s case is definitely weird and wonky. It’s very strange that one from his staff flagged this before. The optics look really bad.”
Plante said the case is going before the ethics commission, who will investigate, but in the meantime, it’s unlikely Morneau will resign and likely will “ride it out.”
“Because of COVID, no one has an appetite for an election right now. And the LIberals are really good at apologizing, they seem to weather all storms.”
Tories, NDP call on new investigation of Morneau
The Conservatives and the NDP on Wednesday also wrote to ethics commissioner Mario Dion to probe trips Morneau took three years ago.
Poilievre said the trips violated several sections of the conflict of interest law that prohibit ministers or their families from accepting paid travel.
NDP MP Charlie Angus told the ethics commissioner in a letter that the trips bring “to another level” concerns about Morneau’s involvement in handing WE Charity the contract.
— With files from the Canadian Press