Politics

Liberal MPs on ethics committee vote down opposition motion for Mario Dion to testify on Trudeau

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt's motion to demand CBC reporter hand over recordings defeated by committee vote

Posted: August 21, 2019
Last Updated: August 21, 2019

Conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mario Dion will not be appearing before the House of Commons ethics committee after Liberal MPs voted down a motion to hear him testify. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Liberal majority on the House of Commons ethics committee has voted down an opposition motion to call Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to testify about his report concluding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon said he and the other Liberal MPs sitting on the committee today voted down the motion because, following Dion's report and hours of testimony on the scandal over a five-week period, there was nothing new to add to their understanding of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

"The opposition's claim to simply wanting the facts is contradicted by the fact that what they seek is found in the commissioner's report," MacKinnon said.

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"The only conclusion that I, and members of this committee, can come to is that the opposition seeks to prolong this process for reasons of politics, reasons of partisan games, and it is for that reason … that we will be opposing this motion."

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith broke ranks with his party and voted with opposition MPs to call Dion before the committee — not, he said, because he thought Dion had more to tell, but because he wanted to challenge the commissioner's findings, which he called "flawed."

"I would like the commissioner to sit right there to answer how he got this so completely, completely wrong," Erskine-Smith said.

Dion had said that he would be happy to appear before the committee to discuss his report. Despite Erskine-Smith's vote, the Liberals' majority on the committee saw to it that the motion to call Dion was defeated 5 to 4.

The commissioner's report, released last week, found that Trudeau improperly pressured then-justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to give Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution deal to allow the firm to avoid a looming corruption trial.

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The company is accused of paying almost $50 million in bribes to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011 and of defrauding Libyan organizations of almost $130 million.

Dion must respond to Trudeau: Raitt

Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt told the committee that, after months of Liberals saying Dion should be trusted to carry out his investigation of Trudeau, the ethics commissioner should be trusted to testify before the committee.

Raitt said she wanted Dion to respond to two of Trudeau's statements — that his government fully cooperated with Dion's investigation and that Trudeau does not accept the conclusion that the prime minister should have no contact at all with the attorney general on pending decisions.

"It is owed to all of these comments that the ethics commissioner does have the ability to come in and be able to respond to the two things the prime minister has said on this report," she said.

Raitt also quoted interviews Wilson-Raybould and former health minister Jane Phillpott gave to CBC News Network's Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos. Raitt cited instances where the former Liberal cabinet ministers suggested there was more to the SNC-Lavalin story that needed to be heard as part of her argument for calling Dion before the committee.

Conservative MP Peter Kent said Dion's investigation was incomplete because he was prevented, by the clerk of the privy council, from reviewing evidence that the clerk declared was covered by cabinet confidence.

Kent said that because Dion's inquiry was unable to review all evidence, MPs on the committee needed to be briefed by the commissioner himself.

Other motions defeated

NDP MP Charlie Angus introduced another motion asking the committee to also call Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and PMO adviser Ben Chin to testify about SNC-Lavalin. The vote was defeated 6 to 3, with Erskine-Smith siding with his party.

Bob Zimmer, chair of the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, waits to begin the committee meeting on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Angus warned that the SNC-Lavalin affair was a "stench that hangs over Canada's international reputation" and argued Dion's appearance was being shut down because the Liberals don't want bad press so close to a federal election.

"All corporations must have a respect for the rule of law and the prime minister must have respect for the rule of law, and what we've seen here, and what we're seeing today is that they don't have a respect for the rule of law," Angus said. "Its about helping the rich and powerful, and that is the corrosive power of the one per cent. And that is what has to be called out."

Raitt also brought up the recently-published book Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power (HarperCollins) by CBC senior writer Aaron Wherry. Citing passages in the book where Trudeau discusses meeting with Wilson-Raybould, Raitt put forth a motion asking that all recordings and notes made of the interview be turned over to the committee to determine if Trudeau broke cabinet confidence in speaking to Wherry. 

Raitt also wanted Wherry to appear and testify before the committee.

The vote failed 8 to 2, with Angus and Erskine-Smith saying that the motion violated freedom of the press.

A 'resignation offence'

Kent, a former journalist, voted in favour of hauling Wherry and his research before the committee and expressed disappointment over Liberal MPs on the committee voting against Dion's appearance.

"Our Liberal colleagues had the chance to do the right thing and shine a little light on (the) SNC corruption scandal by inviting the ethics commissioner to develop a little context for that scathing report he table last week. Instead, they joined the prime minister in attempting this cover up," he said.

"They are complicit in his attempted obstruction of justice."

Raitt said Trudeau should not be permitted to say he disagrees with Dion's report without the commissioner being given a chance to respond.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Trudeau committed a "resignation offence" by pressuring Wilson-Raybould but she said she would leave it to the prime minister to decide whether he should resign.

"I think today's vote at our committee meeting was sadly predictable," said May. "I suppose they felt one hour of Mr. Dion on national television would harm their election chances."

Returning to court

If SNC-Lavalin is found guilty of the charges, it will be banned from bidding on federal government contracts for a period of 10 years.

A deferred prosecution deal essentially would have put the charges on hold, as long as SNC-Lavalin met a number of predetermined conditions.

Wilson-Raybould, who accused officials in the Prime Minister's Office of applying pressure in an effort to get her to grant the deal, did not overrule the director of public prosecutions' decision requiring the firm to answer the charges against it in court.

The case will return to court Sept. 20.

With files from the CBC's Catharine Tunney