Liberals appear willing to go to the polls over Conservative committee motion

OTTAWA — The federal government appears willing to go to the polls over the Conservatives proposing the creation of a new parliamentary committee to probe Liberal controversies including the WE Charity affair, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is insisting it’s up to the opposition whether there will be a pandemic election.

“It will be up to parliamentarians and the opposition to decide whether they want to make this minority Parliament work, or whether they’ve lost confidence in this government’s ability to manage this pandemic, Trudeau said.

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez declared Tuesday morning that when the motion now being debated in the House of Commons comes up for a vote, the Liberals will consider it a confidence vote. That means, if it passes with the support of all opposition parties, then the government could fall and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could trigger a snap election in the middle of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

“The government considers this motion to be a matter of confidence. The truth is simple: MPs cannot establish a new committee with sweeping powers to investigate what they call the government corruption and assume there is no consequence,” Rodriguez said, calling it “nothing more than a dangerous partisan plan.”

Rodriguez said that the lives of Canadians depend on the federal government focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, though a general election at this time would mean Parliament would shut down for at least 37 days.

Trudeau, noting that with COVID-19 cases on the rise again in Canada, said that the pandemic is “far from over,” and that “nobody wants elections.”

Rodriguez said that “the real debate” is whether Canadians want their government to keep working on the health and economic crisis facing the country, or to be seized with opposition demands. 

This declaration comes on the heels of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole saying that, while he does not have confidence in the Liberal government, he is not looking to go to the polls.

In an apparent effort to avoid that outcome, O’Toole is looking to make expressly clear in one of two proposed amendments to the motion that, that opposition MPs agreeing to pass this new parliamentary forum to look into alleged Liberal corruption, would not be legitimate grounds for going to the polls.

“Canadians expect the truth. They deserve accountability. That’s what this committee will do,” O’Toole told reporters Tuesday morning. “Threatening an election rather than being accountable, for a prime minister who is already on his third personal ethics investigation? It’s time for some accountability and we’re going to bring that.”

The Conservatives are also proposing to change the name of the proposed committee, taking “anti-corruption” out of the title, instead suggesting to call it the “special committee on allegations of misuse of public funds by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic,” though the Conservatives say the mandate of the committee would stay the same.

Rodriguez said changing the name of the committee does nothing to make the proposal more palatable.  

“If you write a book about Frankenstein and you call it Cinderella, it’s still a book about Frankenstein,” he said.

WHAT WOULD COMMITTEE EXAMINE?  

If the motion passes as drafted, the committee would have the power to call Trudeau and other members of cabinet to testify, compel the disclosure of troves of documents, and dig into a handful of Conservative-alleged Liberal scandals and conflicts of interest. 

It would also see the committee scheduled to meet within a week, granted “first claim to the priority use of House resources,” and instructed to issue an interim report by February 15, 2021.

“We cannot turn our committees into partisan inquisition, to force private citizens to release personal information, where does it end?” Rodriguez said, adding that if the committee is enacted it would “paralyze” the government and take its focus off COVID-19.

“Do we really want a committee that has the power to force the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, all ministers to drop their work, the important work they’re doing and come testify?” he continued, insisting the Liberals’ opposition to the proposal has nothing to do with dodging accountability.

However, the willingness to declare this a matter of confidence has only emboldened Conservatives who think the Liberals have something to hide by going to these lengths to try to squash further study of the government’s behaviour.  

In an attempt to compromise, the Liberals have suggested the creation of a different special committee, one focused solely on the billions of dollars of federal government’s COVID-19 spending, where it’s possible tangents of these Conservative-alleged scandals could be evaluated, but other committees currently at a standstill over the WE Charity showdown, could be freed up to do other studies.

This Liberal proposal was shot down by the Conservatives.

“Your government must acknowledge that it no longer enjoys a majority in the House of Commons and that it will, accordingly, begin to accept the legitimate and necessary exercise of parliamentary scrutiny without resorting to election threats, obfuscation and misdirection whenever you face the prospect of not getting your own way,” Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell said in a letter to Rodriguez on Monday night.

VOTE TO HAPPEN WEDNESDAY

While MPs are set to debate the motion throughout the day, it’s expected to come up for a vote on Wednesday after question period. Wednesday marks the one year anniversary of the 2019 election which saw the Liberals reduced to a minority.

The backing of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois will be needed in order to give the Conservatives the majority of votes needed to pass this proposal given the Liberals’ minority standing in Parliament.  

Asked about the prospect of making the vote a confidence matter, NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters Monday that it would be “completely irresponsible” to call an election right now, not only because of COVID-19, but because as a result Parliament will not be able to reconvene for months.

“I can’t see the prime minister being that reckless so our message to the Liberals is just calm down,” Angus said.

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