Opinion: PM must ponder changes

When the most powerful politician in Ottawa is up on the witness stand, it is fitting that comedy can be found in a power outage.

A high point of Justin Trudeau’s 90-minute appearance before the Commons finance committee last week was the moment when the power went out in Prince Edward Island, removing chair Wayne Easter from the teleconference session.

After a brief flurry of what do we do now among the members, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre realized that his title of vice-chair put him in charge of the proceedings and he promptly assigned himself to ask more questions of the prime minister.

Alas, the power outage lasted only slightly less time than Poilievre’s dreams this year of running for the Conservative leadership. Easter returned on screen from P.E.I. and Poilievre was relegated for the rest of the day to his old role as chief interrogator/interrupter for the Opposition.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice, unless, of course, you are a prime minister under an ethics cloud once again, enduring a storm that feels a lot like two or three previous controversies during the Trudeau tenure.

Power is very much what’s at issue here in the wake of Trudeau’s appearance at the finance committee — namely, whether this is the controversy that is going to plunge the Liberals into danger of losing power.

In the meantime as well, Liberals will be talking about how this self-inflicted damage will change the way they are exercising power from day to day.

By their own account, some diligence was exercised when Trudeau first learned that the WE Charity had been picked to administer a pandemic-relief program for students — but not enough.

Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, told the finance committee on Thursday that they were reflecting on ways in which they could avoid messes like this in future.

“While we did ask many questions to make this program a success, we could have done better,” Telford said. “We could have done more. We could have added yet another layer of scrutiny to avoid any potential perception of favouritism.”

The pandemic had already disrupted business as usual in Trudeau’s government; a reality that has emerged in much of the testimony so far on the WE saga — politicos and public servants working crazy hours, from home, to keep Canadians afloat during the pandemic.

The whole controversy is an argument for extra accountability over how quickly money has been going out the door — whether that scrutiny takes place inside the PMO before programs are announced, or afterward, with some hard examination and questioning by the opposition.

Even Liberals themselves are saying that some changes are needed to business as usual in the government, and they are talking about what was usual before the pandemic, not just during it.

Trudeau had been working on better outreach to caucus and Liberals even before COVID-19 consumed every minute of the government’s attention. His warmer relationship with Bob Rae, recently appointed as the new ambassador to the United Nations, is seen as evidence that the prime minister was broadening the tight circle of advice he gets.

There has been talk of Telford needing to go — just as principal secretary Gerald Butts departed during the SNC-Lavalin drama of 2019 — but the chief of staff was talking very much in the future tense about her job during Thursday’s testimony, which probably means that she will remain.

What may occur, though, is that the PMO will be out looking for some reinforcements to the team, to provide that “extra level of scrutiny” within the office.

A cabinet shuffle is looking increasingly likely, too, sooner rather than later. As my colleague Heather Scoffield has written, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s shelf life may be limited in the wake of WE, given how his involvement with the charity has repeatedly put the government into awkward spots.

The shuffle may have been in the works for a while, but WE has turned it into a potentially disciplinary one as well.

That means we are about to head into another few weeks (some say days) of Liberals sitting by their phone, waiting to get the good or bad news about cabinet. By happy coincidence for the PMO, that atmosphere tends to keep MPs in line, which may mute some of the grumbling that has been coming from caucus during the WE saga.

The prospect of another election, while not as imminent, will be weighing on the Liberals, too.

While a brief power outage may cause a few laughs in the middle of this strange summer, being out of power is no laughing matter.

For a few brief moments on Thursday, a bolt of lightning put the Conservatives in charge. Trudeau and his team are highly focused right now in making sure that lightning doesn’t strike again, and again and again.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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