Opposition parties gear up for next round of fight with Liberals over WE controversy

OTTAWA — The threat of a possible snap election will be hovering over Parliament Hill this week as opposition parties resume their fight with the Liberal government over the WE controversy and preparations for the second wave of COVID-19.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner on Sunday called for a House of Commons committee to investigate what she suggested was Ottawa’s lack of readiness in dealing with the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

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The request was in relation to a motion that she made to the Commons health committee earlier this month asking for a wide-ranging study on the issue, which is expected to be debated by committee members on Monday.

"Today, as businesses are closed and in another series of COVID-related economic shutdowns, we are looking for answers as to why the federal government left Canadians unprepared to deal with this second wave," Rempel Garner told a news conference.

"That's why this study is so important. Canadians deserve an explanation about why the federal government only has an economic shutdown to rely upon after months, and billions of dollars being spent."

Among the issues the Tories want studied are Ottawa’s efforts to buy personal protective equipment, why rapid COVID-19 tests have not been approved as well as the decision to shutter Canada’s pandemic early-warning system last year.

Yet the real drama will surround ongoing opposition efforts to dig into the government’s decision in the spring to have WE Charity run a multimillion-dollar federal program for student volunteers during the pandemic.

The Conservatives are scheduled to have what is known as an opposition day on Tuesday, and have indicated they plan to raise one of three issues in the House of Commons that will be put to a vote.

Two relate to China and are non-binding on the government. One calls for Ottawa to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for recent crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong, and the other to ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G network.

But the third, if supported by the three main opposition parties, would roll several committee investigations into the WE deal — and the charity’s payments to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family — into one special committee.

Rempel Garner was noncommittal on Sunday when asked if the Tories planned to push for what they are describing as an "anticorruption committee," saying the party still has another day to decide.

"But one way or the other, we are going to get answers on this issue," she added. "These documents should come to light."

The comments follow Liberal filibusters on the Commons’ ethics and finance committees last week as opposition members tried to resurrect two WE investigations suspended when Trudeau prorogued Parliament in August.

The finance committee was tied up for hours Thursday over a Conservative motion denouncing redactions to more than 5,000 pages of WE-related documents released last August.

The ethics committee was similarly stalled over a Conservative motion demanding the agency that arranged speaking events for Trudeau, his wife, mother and brother, turn over receipts for all the Trudeaus' paid engagements over the past 12 years.

The Liberals have since proposed their own special committee that would examine billions of dollars in federal spending related to COVID-19, which is closer to what the federal NDP have wanted.

At the same time, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez on Friday suggested that if the Conservatives push ahead with their motion on Tuesday to create a new committee, the Liberals could make the matter a confidence vote.

That would mean a possible snap election if the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois all supported the Tories’ move to create an anticorruption committee, which would also look at what the Tories describe as other "scandals or potential scandals."

The other potential scandals include allegations that the husband of Trudeau's chief of staff may have benefited from the government's program for commercial rent relief and improperly lobbied for changes to the emergency wage-subsidy programs — which federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion has already dismissed as speculative and without evidence.

They also include a contract given to former Liberal MP Frank Baylis's company for ventilators not yet approved by Health Canada.

The Bloc did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus dismissed Rodriguez’s threat, saying it would be "one of the most irresponsible things anybody’s ever done in the history of Canada" to plunge the country into an election now.

"Given the fact that our COVID-19 numbers are going off the charts right now, that the government would even threaten to plunge us into the chaos of an election ... in order to avoid answering questions on the Trudeau relationship with WE, that would be so staggeringly irresponsible, I can't think that he could be serious."

And while Angus indicated an openness to the Liberal proposal for a COVID-19 committee, he suggested opposition parties were getting tired and frustrated at what he described as the government’s stonewalling over the WE controversy.

"The Liberals have said publicly that they're ready to work on establishing the committee," he said. "Everybody's waiting to see if the Liberals are serious. If they're not serious, it’s just going to make the opposition party’s even more frustrated." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2020.

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