The Guardian (Charlottetown)

The trouble with Justin

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It’s as if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised his hand to warn about a large mudhole dead ahead, then proceeded to step right into it anyway.

That was one big takeaway from the prime minister’s extraordin­ary 90-minute testimony before the House finance committee investigat­ing the WE Charity contract controvers­y on Thursday.

Trudeau told the committee that on May 8, the date the prime minister says he first became aware of a proposed sole-sourced contract to WE Charity to run a $900-million federal student grant program, he pulled the deal from that day’s cabinet agenda and asked it be thoroughly vetted.

The reason, Trudeau said, was because he was sensitive to the potential for perceived conflict of interest, due to his family’s ties to that organizati­on.

So the prime minister wisely sensed the danger of a seeming impropriet­y. Which makes what happened next even more inexplicab­le.

When the file returned to cabinet later in May with the same recommenda­tion from the civil service, Trudeau — despite previously signalling he was aware of how it might look — nonetheles­s took full part in discussion­s that led to the contract’s approval.

Trudeau has apologized and indicated he should have recused himself. Well, yes. So why didn’t he?

The prime minister’s self-described passion for youth service doesn’t excuse what appears to be yet another lapse of ethical judgement on his part.

One might think, given Trudeau has twice been found to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act by the ethics commission­er — in the Aga Khan and SNC-Lavalin controvers­ies — that the prime minister would be well-versed in that piece of legislatio­n.

But during Thursday’s testimony, Trudeau made a point of countering opposition attacks on perceived conflicts of interest involving his mother and brother by stating — correctly — that the act defined family as an office holder’s spouse and dependents.

Yes, but that act also states conflicts of interest extend to relatives, which would include Margaret and Alexandre Trudeau.

The prime minister also argued the student grant contract in no way helped his mother or brother.

The prime minister again seems to be missing the point. If WE Charity benefited (up to a $43 million administra­tion fee) from a decision Trudeau had a hand in, there could easily be the perception that WE Charity might, as payback, hire his mother or brother for future lucrative speaking gigs.

We’re talking of perception here. No one has to prove that actually would happen. The mere perception of a possible conflict of interest should have led Trudeau to recuse himself from any part of cabinet deliberati­ons about the WE Charity contract.

It appears, fairly or not, that the prime minister simply doesn’t understand the spirit of the law.

This is hardly the end of the controvers­y, of course. Many questions remain about Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s involvemen­t, as well as details linked to the charity’s founders, the Kielburger­s.

Sadly, students who might have benefited from the grant program that’s now not going ahead as planned, are being hurt by the mess left by Trudeau’s latest ethical lapse.

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