The Morning Brief – 05.13.21
By Bruce Carson
Last Friday, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Katie Telford appeared before the House of Commons National Defence Committee ostensibly to deal with the issues surrounding Jonathan Vance and who knew what, when, about allegations of sexual misconduct.
Emerging from her two hours of testimony, there may be something we can learn about who knew what and when but more importantly her appearance provided Canadians with another glimpse inside Trudeau’s PMO and how it and cabinet ministers deal with issues, or not.
Last Friday was not the first time we have had a look inside the workings of the Trudeau PMO but with all of these openings into Trudeau’s decision making, added to the body of evidence, allow parliamentarians and scholars to arrive at their own conclusions as to how decisions are made, or not, and then how they are implemented, or not.
The first opening came with the Trudeau Christmas vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island. The details of various issues raised are contained in the report of the Ethics Commissioner. Two things arise out of that report and are Trudeau’s complete lack of awareness as to how this vacation would be perceived by Canadians and second, and this relates to the issues at hand, that no one in the PMO assumed the role of “speaking truth to power,” warning Trudeau that this vacation doesn’t pass any smell test available then and now.
Is this one of the reasons why Trudeau wasn’t told about what was reported on March 2, 2018 when Military Ombudsman, Gary Walbourne met with Defence Minister Sajjan?
No staffer enjoys being the being the bearer of bad news but there seems to be the beginning of a pattern here that has played out in subsequent years.
Next is the SNC Lavalin affair, which ultimately involved the loss of two cabinet ministers Attorney General and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Health Minister Jane Philpott.
Having been given the position of Attorney General, Wilson-Raybould wanted to fulfil her mandate free from interference and did not appreciate her judgement being second guessed.
Again, in this case there was nobody, that we know of, who laid out the facts for Trudeau, provided him with the consequences that he could possibly lose one or two cabinet ministers over interference with Wilson-Raybould’s decision making.
The issue that seemed to dominate discussions between then Principal Secretary Gerry Butts and Trudeau in shuffling the cabinet after Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board resigned from cabinet was how to deal with Wilson-Raybould. The decision as we know was to appoint her to the position of Minister of Veterans Affairs, a position she resigned shortly after being appointed.
Again, was this a case of not wanting to confront Trudeau with the cabinet management problems that SNC Lavalin had precipitated and how its prosecution was being dealt with by Wilson-Raybould?
Moving on to WE Charity and the controversy that ensued over the proposal to involve WE Charity in the management and distribution of funds to students who because of COVID-19 found the summer job market had evaporated.
The situation again comes close to opening the window into Trudeau, Telford and the operation of cabinet.
The proposal to engage WE Charity in the student programs was on the agenda of a cabinet meeting and the evidence at committee was that Trudeau had not been briefed on the matter, he was surprised, and the matter was pulled from the agenda.
Anyone familiar with the rigor that goes into the planning of a cabinet meeting from PCO, the challenge function, and from PMO, briefing the prime minister, would find this omission regarding WE Charity to be very disconcerting.
Moving to last Friday’s hearing, there are at least two questions to confront; how is a major issue dealt with in the PMO and then the question asked frequently by Conservative MPs, who made the decision not to inform the prime minister?
The allegation that Canada’s top soldier, Jonathan Vance was involved in some form of sexual misconduct spun around PMO and PCO like the spin cycle in a washing machine until it was agreed by the major players that the allegation would not be pursued further and any desire to find out the nature of the complaint was absent.
However, as Professor Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant of Queen’s University said after Telford’s testimony that there is a difference between seeking information and interfering in an investigation.
The only relevant inquiry made by Telford was to determine if the allegation dealt with a matter of safety. The response was negative and surprisingly the next logical question was never asked “was this a matter of sexual misconduct?” As the allegation moved from Walbourne to Sajjan to PCO and PMO as Paul Wells put it last Friday on Power and Politics “all the people who make decisions in the government knew.”
The second question was who made the decision not to inform the prime minister?
There was no direct answer to that question but from Telford’s testimony and her position in Trudeau’s office, the obvious answer is that she made the decision not to tell Trudeau once it had been rationalized among those with knowledge of the matter, that the investigation could go no further and therefore there was nothing to tell the prime minister.
The reasoning from Telford was since no one knew the nature of the complaint, despite it being mentioned in a PCO email, there was nothing to tell the prime minister.
A decision was made to do nothing, knowing there was someone out there with a complaint against Canada’s top soldier, on a matter the government through the Dechamps report was heavily invested in addressing.
As NDP committee member Randall Garrison put it succinctly, no one has taken responsibility for this, so how can we go forward?
John Ivison in his column following Telford’s testimony quoted Professor Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton as saying that Telford “had no business there (at committee) that’s why we have ministers.” Savoie went on to say cabinet is “little more than a focus group” with ministers delegating controversial matters up to the PMO.
Ivison’s comment was that this suits Trudeau to have a weak cabinet as it is all about the prime minister’s brand.
He also quoted Derek Burney, chief of staff to former Prime Minister Mulroney who said ministers knew their role and when they were accountable –it was an idea that underpinned the convention of responsible government.
So what are we to conclude from these incidents since 2015? They seem to prove Savoie right that governing has become ministers delegating up to PMO.
However as in the case of Vance the effect of burying the matter is that Canadians and especially women in Canada’s Armed Forces are not being served. With the 2019 election under his belt, Trudeau and his staff may believe they can carry on indefinitely in this manner. But who are they serving? Who does this method of governing benefit?
It is time for courageous folks in the Liberal Party, the opposition, media and academics to come forward with recommendations regarding what is happening around the cabinet table in order to restore responsible, accountable government.
- PBO releases two costing reports
- Monthly survey of manufacturing for March to be released
- Wholesale trade numbers for March to be released
- CPI numbers for April to be released
- Retail trade numbers for March to be released
As next week is a break week for the House of Commons, The Morning Brief will return on Wednesday, May 26.