As It Happens·Q&A

Bill Morneau's $41K WE Charity travel expenses 'really crosses the line,' says NDP ethics critic

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says the ethics commissioner should once again investigate Bill Morneau after the Liberal finance minister revealed that WE Charity covered $41,000 in travel costs for him and his family in 2017.

Charlie Angus calls on ethics commissioner to widen his probe into the finance minister's behaviour

NDP ethics critic and Ontario MP Charlie Angus says Bill Morneau needs to be held accountable for breaching the Conflict of Interest Act. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
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NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says the ethics commissioner should investigate Bill Morneau again, after the Liberal finance minister revealed that WE Charity covered $41,000 in travel costs for him and his family in 2017.

Morneau testified Wednesday in front of the House of Commons finance committee that he'd taken two trips with his family on WE Charity's dime, and was surprised to learn he hadn't paid the charity back. He cut a cheque to cover the costs and apologized.

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion has already launched an investigation into Morneau for not recusing himself from the government's decision to award a $900-million contract to WE to administer a summer student grants program. The finance minister's daughter works for the charity. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also come under fire for not recusing himself from cabinet discussions about the WE contract. His mother and brother have earned a combined $300,000 in speaking fees from WE.

Angus and Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett have both written to Dion demanding a wider investigation into Morneau's behaviour. Here is part of Angus' conversation with As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. 

The ethics commissioner is already investigating the finance minister with regard to the WE Charity. Why are you asking for another probe?

I think we were all absolutely stunned at the finance committee hearing when Bill Morneau came in and said he'd forgotten that he had taken $41,000 worth of international travel with WE. It slipped his mind.

This is a real serious breach of multiple, multiple sections of the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code.

This is very different than him just not recusing himself because of his daughter's involvement. This is about him accepting these kinds of international paid travel for him and his family. It really crosses the line this time.

Morneau says he was surprised to learn he'd not paid WE Charity back for the travel expenses. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

Mr. Morneau told the committee he was surprised to learn he hadn't paid a $41,000 bill for his trips with WE to Africa and to Ecuador with his family. He said it was a mistake. He apologized. Do you believe him that this could have been a mistake or a sloppy error?

I think what was the most shocking was I asked Mr. Morneau a very simple question: Have you ever read the Conflict of Interest Act?

And he seemed quite taken aback by that. He paused and he said: Well, there were many acts that I saw when I first became elected.

That, to me, is the heart of the problem. The Conflict of Interest Act and the Code [are] the rule book for members of Parliament. We're expected to know these things.

The WE Charity stood to benefit from this. But how does Minister Morneau benefit?

Accepting these gifts based on the obvious assumption that they're trying to influence very powerful people, the minister has to be aware of that.

It's something that they don't seem to understand — that you cannot be having this close financial relationship with people who are looking to the government to get very, very favourable results.

Not only is it so obviously wrong, it's actually not legal.

How do you think Canadians are reacting to this idea that he just forgot to pay a $41,000 bill?

I think for Canadians who are struggling to get through COVID — you know, I was just talking with some young people whose CERB is ending. They don't know how they're going to pay their bills. Someone who forgets that he's got $41,000 worth of international travel, to me, there's a real disconnect.

The bigger issue here is that one of the things I think we've all been proud of in Canada with COVID is how the nation came together, how we put aside a lot of the partisan issues.

You know, as opposition, we worked with the government. We want to get programs out. Our civil service did incredible work. I think they call it the "Dunkirk moment." They worked nights and weekends trying to make sure the emergency funding got out the door.

To have this debacle happen now is a real stain, certainly on Mr. Morneau and Mr. Trudeau, but on all the workings of government that ... such badly needed money could have been mishandled so badly, and it's still not getting out the door.

Mr. Morneau needs to wear this. 

Jonathan Wilkinson, Melanie Joly, Steven Guilbeault and Catherine McKenna defended the finance minister and his record to reporters on Thursday. 2:01

Mr. Morneau said that the conversations that led to the WE Charity getting this program were all about trying to help young people who are suffering, as you point out. So do you think that the good intentions that were behind the program, do they count for anything here?

I think there was a lot of goodwill to get a program out the door. We certainly had Canada Summer Jobs ready to do it.

This isn't how we do business with government. We have a civil service. It was ready to help. We had the students who needed the money and it didn't get out the door, and it's still not getting out the door.

So obviously there were serious problems with this, and they just didn't see the necessity to put the public interest first. And they ended up in dead-end valley.

The Conservatives are calling for Minister Morneau's resignation. Do you think he should resign?

Our focus right now as New Democrats is that we need to get answers here. We're in the middle of a pandemic. This debacle is, I think, a real stain for all of us. Let's get answers and then let's make decisions. Let's let the conflict of interest commissioner do his work.

But I think Mr. Morneau has seriously damaged himself this time. I think it's very unfortunate.

WE co-founders Craig, left, and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa in 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This is a minority Parliament. If it was a serious breach, as you're pointing out, couldn't your party stop backing the government's legislation and force an election on this?

We're not here to win the points and force an election. This is not what Canadians need right now. But we do need accountability.

If Mr. Morneau has to be removed from his position to restore that confidence in the Canadian people, then we will push for that.

But the main focus for us [is] we want answers as to how this happened. We want to know why nobody in the Prime Minister's Office or cabinet seems to think that the Conflict of Interest Act applies to them.

You'll have a chance to ask the prime minister, because he's agreed to testify before the committee, which is a rare thing on Parliament Hill. What are the specific questions that you have for the prime minister?

After his first finding of guilt, I would have thought someone in his office would have put some rules in place. After the second finding of guilt that cost him his chief-of-staff Gerry Butts, it cost the clerk of the Privy Council, [and] two very respected women cabinet ministers, that they would have had something in place to protect the prime minister from hurting himself. And that doesn't seem to have been done.

I think it's a question about the operating culture in the Prime Minister's Office. Justin Trudeau has a clear blind spot on these things. But as a prime minister, he needs to be constrained and protected from doing damage to himself.

Why did the prime minister not have people around him to keep him from making such colossal errors in judgment at a time when we really needed him to be focused on the pandemic?


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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