OTTAWA _ There’s no need to summon Justin Trudeau to testify about his controversial Bahamas vacation when he’s already discussing the matter publicly, Liberals on the House of Commons ethics committee said Tuesday as they rushed to the defence of their ethically embattled prime minister.
Opposition MPs on the committee had hoped to convince some members of the Liberal majority to compel Trudeau to appear before the committee to address his dealings with the Aga Khan, in particular his family’s contentious December 2016 visit to the billionaire spiritual leader’s private Bahamian island.
Predictably, however, their efforts landed short of the mark as the vote fell along party lines, with Liberals voting unanimously to reject the Conservative motion.
The questions the opposition wants to ask can be asked during question period, while ordinary Canadians will get the chance to grill the prime minister during a series of cross-country town hall meetings that gets underway Tuesday in Halifax, said Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
There’s no point in having the committee “re-litigating issues that we’re likely to see in question period,” he added.
Tuesday’s meeting was a prelude of sorts to Wednesday’s main event, when the committee hears from Mary Dawson, the former ethics commissioner who called the prime minister on the carpet over the trip in one of the last official pronouncements of her tenure, which ended Monday.
Dawson’s scathing report, released just before Christmas, found Trudeau violated four different provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act when he and members of his family accepted the trip, which left taxpayers on the hook for more than $200,000 and which Dawson said could be seen as a gift designed to influence the prime minister.
She chided Trudeau for not following his own ethics rules for cabinet ministers, and raised questions about how he views his job.
She said Trudeau shouldn’t have accepted the trip nor a lift on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter, and should have recused himself from two meetings focused on federal funding for the Aga Khan’s charity.
However, Dawson also said she found no evidence that Trudeau used his position to further the Aga Khan’s private interest.
Trudeau’s government has had official dealings with the Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, and his charitable foundation.
The prime minister told Dawson that he saw the Aga Khan as a close family friend _ a view that would have exempted the trips from any ethical review and Trudeau from any scrutiny. Dawson determined the two men couldn’t be considered friends, noting that they barely spoke for three decades before Trudeau became a major political player on the national scene.
During an appearance Tuesday on CBC Radio’s “Information Morning” in Halifax, Trudeau was asked directly whether he’d be willing to appear before the committee. He ducked the question, dismissing the idea as little more than an Opposition effort to score political points.
“We have an ethics commissioner that is above partisan politics, to make rulings and to look into things, to help Canadians separate the partisan attacks and mud slinging and the politics from what actually happened,” he said.
“As I’ve said, I’m happy to work with the ethics commission. I think keeping politics and partisan attacks to the side on this is what Canadians expect.”
His words drew a strong rebuke from opposition members of the ethics committee. Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent, the architect of Tuesday’s ill-fated motion, said Trudeau has the same obligation to be accountable to Parliament as any other federal politician.
“It is his responsibility to make himself available to members of Parliament to discuss the report and his feelings about the commissioner’s findings,” Kent said. “There is no more appropriate location, I believe, than before this committee, which is responsible for the ethical practices of the House of Commons.”
NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen urged the Liberal majority on the committee to ignore any partisan political instincts they might have been feeling and to do the right thing.
There are still several questions for Trudeau to answer, he said, including why he persists in calling the Aga Khan a family friend despite Dawson’s conclusions otherwise.
Kent has said Trudeau owes it to Canadians to foot the bill for the trip, saying such a gesture would show the prime minister is truly sorry for his ethical lapse in accepting the Aga Khan’s invitation to vacation on the island.
A spokesperson for the prime minister has said Trudeau reimbursed the commercial equivalent of his and his family’s flights to and from Nassau. The prime minister has also acknowledged he should have taken precautions and cleared his family vacation prior to the trip.