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Federal Election Averted As Liberals, NDP Defeat Contentious Conservative Motion

Liberals threatened a snap election over a Tory motion for a new committee to study the WE Charity controversy and alleged government scandals.

OTTAWA — There will be no snap election call — at least not yet — after a contentious Conservative motion that the Liberal government declared a confidence test was defeated in the House of Commons Wednesday.

Members of Parliament voted 180 to 146 against an opposition bid to create a new committee to scrutinize the WE Charity controversy and the government’s handling of pandemic-related spending.

At a press conference roughly two hours before the crucial vote, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh signalled his party wouldn’t support the Tory motion, but would not say if his party might abstain from the vote altogether.

In the end, his MPs voted to quash the Tory motion and ensured the minority Liberal government would survive another confidence vote, weeks after the NDP supported its throne speech.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are shown in a composite image of photos from The Canadian Press.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are shown in a composite image of photos from The Canadian Press.

Three Green MPs and two Independent MPs, including former Liberal minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, also voted to reject the Conservative gambit.

Canadians are looking for help right now, Singh told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “They are not looking for an election.”

“New Democrats will not give Prime Minister Trudeau the election he is looking for. We’re not going to be used as an excuse or a cover,” he added.

The motion introduced by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole proposed the creation of a new House of Commons committee to study the WE Charity controversy; alleged lobbying by the husband of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford; and contracts awarded to firms with Liberal ties, as well as other “potential scandals” related to the COVID-19 pandemic spending.

O’Toole told reporters earlier this week that new details that continue to emerge “paint a concerning picture of potential corruption at very high levels of the government.”

O’Toole said he did not want an election, but he also said he had no confidence in the Liberal government.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to members of the National Caucus in Ottawa on Sept. 9, 2020.
Adrian Wyld/CP
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to members of the National Caucus in Ottawa on Sept. 9, 2020.

Bloc Québécois MPs voted with the Conservatives. Earlier in the day, Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien urged the NDP to vote with the opposition in defeating the government.

“This government is starting to look more and more like a club of cronyism, who take money from public funds and to give to their friends,” he said. “We must absolutely stop this government.”

Singh told reporters that neither the Conservatives nor the Bloc have delivered help for people during the pandemic, while his party has secured gains by working with the Liberals, such as on paid sick leave. There is more the NDP wants to do, he said, highlighting the establishment of universal pharmacare and childcare, and national standards for long-term care for seniors.

Canadians went to the polls just a year ago, he added, and the confidence of the House was recently tested twice — once unanimously on a bill to extend financial assistance to those unable to work and a second time on the throne speech.

The opposition, Singh added, should continue its investigation into the WE controversy by using the current committee structure, such as the inquiry underway at the ethics committee. The Liberals have been filibustering those discussions.

Green Party leader: Not time for ‘partisan political games’

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul issued a statement explaining that her three-member caucus would not indulge in “partisan political games” during a public health pandemic.

“There is simply no room for the brinkmanship that we have witnessed over the past days,” Paul said, referencing the Conservatives’ push for a deeper investigation into the WE Charity controversy and Liberal MPs’ response by filibustering committees.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the Liberals don’t want an election but, as a minority government, cannot continue to govern and pass legislation, such as help for small businesses, without opposition cooperation.

“We need the confidence of the House to do our job,” she said Wednesday. “The ball is in the opposition’s court.”

Originally pitched as an “anti-corruption committee,” the Conservatives renamed it Tuesday as a special committee on “allegations of misuse of public funds by the government.”

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez compared the name change to writing a book about Frankenstein and calling it “Cinderella.”

The concession did nothing to change the Liberal government’s view that the opposition is calling the government corrupt, Rodriguez said, and that passing the motion would mean the Grits have lost the confidence of the House.

The lengthy motion called for the creation of a 15-member committee comprised of six Liberals, five Tories (including a Conservative chair), two Bloc Québécois MPs, and two NDP MPs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2020.
Adrian Wyld/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2020.

It also stated that Trudeau, Freeland, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger could be “ordered to appear as witnesses from time to time, as the committee sees fit.”

Trudeau told Radio-Canada’s New Brunswick morning show Wednesday that the Conservative motion is “toxic” and suggested it would “paralyze” the government while it tries to deal with the pandemic.

“You cannot read the motion and think that someone who is voting for this motion continues to believe that the government has the capacity to manage this pandemic,” Trudeau said.

“If the opposition parties no longer have confidence in this government, that is serious, and there are consequences,” he said, still insisting the Liberals don’t want an election.

In addition to investigating the WE Charity controversy and “all aspects” of the ill-fated Canada Student Service Grant program, including relationships between the government and charity co-founders Marc and Craig Kielburger, the motion called for investigations into:

  • Alleged lobbying by Rob Silver, Telford’s spouse, over an emergency COVID-19 support program, something the ethics watchdog has already said didn’t amount to a conflict of interest;
  • “All aspects” related to the purchase and “regulatory approval of ventilators manufactured by, or otherwise associated with, the Baylis Medical Company,” which is owned by former Liberal MP Frank Baylis;
  • “Any other matter connected to the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response measures” that any House standing committee may ask the group to investigate.

The motion also included orders for unredacted documents from WE and Speakers’ Spotlight, the agency that arranged speaking events for Trudeau, his wife, mother and brother, dating back to 2008.

The Liberals counter-offered to establish a special committee to review all pandemic-related spending, including the WE affair. Rodriguez warned ahead of the vote that the Tory proposal would only create a “partisan inquisition” that would ensnare private citizens and drag public servants and political leaders from their focus on the COVID-19 crisis.

O’Toole has said such a committee would just drown out opposition efforts to get to the “truth.”

“They would rather deliver 500 boxes full of spending documents and bog down Parliament for months rather than us bring in three boxes of the documents they’ve been avoiding to give us or to remove the blacking out of documents to hide what they actually contain. So which is more reasonable?” he asked this week.

On Wednesday, O’Toole expressed incredulity that the Liberals would hold the threat of an election over the opposition just because the Conservatives asked “a few questions about Liberal spending, and decisions, and the appearance of corruption amidst a pandemic.”

He wondered whether Trudeau would “threaten an election — in a pandemic — every time an opposition party asks a question on their pandemic planning, on support for small business, or former Liberal MPs and Liberal insiders getting access to hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

“He’s going to have to get used to the fact that the Conservatives are going to do our job,” he added.

That question may be answered sooner rather than later. The Conservatives tabled another motion Tuesday evening calling for an extensive study of the government’s pandemic response at the health committee.

It is unclear whether the Liberal government will consider that motion a confidence matter — one that would spark another parliamentary showdown.

With files from Zi-Ann Lum

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