Politics

Morneau's budget speech drowned out by shouts of 'let her speak'

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau has tabled his government's 2019 budget, getting around a threat by the Opposition Conservatives to stir up a disruption because Liberal MPs on the justice committee had shut down an investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Opposition angry justice committee ended probe into SNC-Lavalin affair

Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday March 19, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

After a delay in the House of Commons, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau was finally able deliver his budget speech this evening — even though nobody could hear it at first.

Morneau tabled his government's 2019 budget just before 4 p.m., getting around a threat by the Opposition Conservatives to stir up a disruption because Liberal MPs on the justice committee had shut down an investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair.

But his budget speech was delayed by procedural votes. When he did stand to speak, he was drowned out by Opposition MPs banging on their desks and chanting "let her speak" — a reference to Jody Wilson-Raybould, whose resignation from cabinet last month over the SNC-Lavalin controversy has left the government on the defensive for weeks.

Conservative MPs banged on desks and jeered loudly during Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget speech making it nearly impossible to hear what Morneau was trying to say. 0:26

Per tradition, Morneau was set to deliver his budget speech just after the markets closed, but it was delayed by a vote on a motion to allow MPs studying fisheries to travel.

The Conservatives had threatened all day to disrupt the vote in hopes of delaying Morneau's speech to make a point about the justice committee.

However, Morneau shocked many observers when he rose in the House and tabled the budget document anyway. That meant the lockups — where reporters and stakeholders were anxiously waiting for clearance to file their work — were released on time and the contents of the budget were made public.

Read more of CBC's budget coverage here:

The Tories went ahead with their delaying tactics, which included having a number of Tory MPs voting both for and against the motion. MPs also rose on points of privilege and points of order, further delaying Morneau's speech.

When the finance minister began speaking around 5 p.m. ET, he was drowned out by thunderous noise.

Speaker Geoff Regan tried to intervene multiple times with calls for order, but those requests were disobeyed.

Conservative MPs eventually walked out of the Commons, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer calling the justice committee's decision "an assault on democracy."

Justice investigation ends

The justice committee was looking into allegations the Prime Minister's Office and other officials inappropriately pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, justice minister and attorney general at the time, to allow Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal prosecution on bribery charges providing it met certain conditions in a remediation agreement.

After about two hours, members of the Conservative Party and the NDP emerged and said the Liberals — who hold the majority on the committee — voted in favour of a motion to "consider the meetings on this topic to be concluded."

Leader of the Official Opposition Andrew Scheer threatens emergency actions to ensure Canadians hear the whole story on the SNC-Lavalin affair. 0:34

Scheer  told reporters that the Tories "will consider emergency actions in Parliament to stop this coverup and highlight what (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau has done."

"This is an abuse of power. It's an affront to democracy and an attack on Parliament," Scheer told reporters Tuesday after the committee finished meeting behind closed doors.

"This is corruption on top of corruption on top of corruption."

The Speaker of the House of Commons Geoff Regan rises on a procedural point as Finance Minister Bill Morneau attempts to deliver the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday March 19, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press )

Trudeau said the Conservatives are desperate to discuss anything except the budget and the state of the economy. 

"I think it's quite interesting that the Conservatives desperately don't want to talk about the economy. I think a lot of people will raise an eyebrow at that," he told reporters before heading into question period, where the SNC-Lavalin scandal once again dominated.

"They have no plan. They've never had a plan to grow the economy." 

Opposition wanted to hear from Wilson-Raybould 

The NDP said it would not partake in the Conservatives' plan to put off the budget speech, but renewed calls for a public inquiry.

"This is outrageous. They just want to keep Canadians in the dark. We need to launch a public inquiry now," said NDP MP Murray Rankin, the party's justice critic.

Opposition MPs had been pushing for Wilson-Raybould to return to the committee to talk about why she later resigned from cabinet.

Wilson-Raybould testified for nearly four hours during her appearance in front of the committee last month, but has said she has more to say.

"If there was ever evidence needed that Liberal MPs on the justice committee are agents of the prime minister, doing the work of the prime minister to cover up the prime minister's misdeeds, then one need only look at what happened at this meeting today, where the Liberals have shut down the process," said Conservative MP Michael Cooper, a vice-chair of the committee.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains that he thinks the reason the Conservatives want to talk about SNC-Lavalin is that they have no plan for the economy. 0:45

Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault told reporters Tuesday it's time for the committee to move on.

"We have heard from many of the key players in this matter," he said. "It's time now for the justice committee to do its work."

The five Liberal members signalled their intentions Monday night when they wrote to committee chair Anthony Housefather saying their work is done, and that any further examination of the SNC-Lavalin affair should be left to the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

"As committee members, we have achieved our objectives with respect to these meetings," the letter said. "Following the testimony of all witnesses, we believe that all the rules and laws were followed.

Alberta Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault explains the Liberal majority on the Justice Committee ended the study of the SNC-Lavalin affair. 0:32

"Canadians now have the necessary information to arrive at a conclusion. As parliamentarians, we respect the work of the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner and believe the ongoing study by this independent officer of Parliament is the appropriate way forward."

Liberals blame opposition 

The day started on a sour note.

Soon after the committee meeting started Tuesday, Opposition MPs left the committee rooms, accusing the Liberals of making a mockery of the in-camera proceedings after a document detailing a motion related to hate crimes was handed to reporters and subsequently tweeted out.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said it called into question what is actually in camera and what is not.

"This is yet another effort to change the channel," added Rankin.

In the letter signed by Boissonnault, Iqra Khalid, Ali Ehsassi, Ron McKinnon and Colin Fraser, the Liberal MPs on the committee write that they set out to probe the allegations with an "open mind," but accuse the opposition MPs of falling short.

"We note that the opposition parties rushed to judgment even before hearing all the relevant information," the letter said.

Liberal MPs and staffers gather and speak before the meeting of the Commons justice committee in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"[Tuesday] will be the 11th meeting over five weeks where the committee has discussed this topic. We heard 13 hours of comprehensive testimony from 10 different witnesses. Canadians can judge for themselves the facts, perspectives and relevant legal principles."

The pre-scheduled meeting also came a day after Clerk of Privy Council Michael Wernick, a key player in the SNC-Lavalin affair, announced he would be stepping down after 38 years of public service.

While he called the move 'retirement', he acknowledged there is "no path" for him to have a "relationship of mutual trust and respect" with opposition party leaders following what critics described as his partisan statements before the committee on the SNC-Lavalin affair.

He has denied making "veiled threats" to pressure Wilson-Raybould.

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With files from the CBC's Peter Zimonjic and The Canadian Press

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