The Need for Transparency and Accountability in the COVID-19 Pandemic

This speech was delivered in the House of Commons on July 22, 2020.
Madam Chair, I want to take the opportunity to speak to the importance of something that has been lacking in the government’s response to COVID, and that is transparency and accountability, which we just saw in the House of Commons a few seconds ago.
I will also be addressing how critical it is that Parliament be sitting to oversee the response to this pandemic. We have seen this week that we can, on all sides of the chamber, agree to sit for the first time in years, maybe even in history, in the summer and that we can have a great discussion on the disability bill, Bill C-20, that we talked about in this place on Monday and Tuesday.
Parliament granted special spending powers to the government so that it could provide emergency support to Canadian workers and many businesses in a fashion that was quick and responsive. I remember the day in the chamber, Friday, March 13, when we rose. We did not know when we would be back and then all of a sudden, three days later, the Prime Minister told everyone to go home. That was Monday, March 16.
Opposition parties have worked with the government to come to an agreement that is crucially important, particularly considering how difficult it was at the time to hold regular, proper sittings in the House of Commons. What Parliament did not consent to was a process to avoid transparency and accountability at every turn. The government has done everything it can to avoid some of the questions from opposition members.
Jobs were lost in the millions in this country. Businesses were shutting down, the economy was shrinking at an unprecedented rate, which we had never seen since the Second World War, and the projected deficit has ballooned to nearly $350 billion.
Why did it take the government until this month, July, nearly four months, to give us any information at all on the state of the economy and its budget? If we follow the pattern of behaviour of the government, it is easy to know that it was avoiding Parliament and its functions as an institution of accountability. I remember the day the finance minister stood and told everyone we had a deficit of $343 billion. It was unheard of. People were phoning my office in Saskatoon—Grasswood. They were stunned. That number was jolting. We now have a debt of over $1 trillion in this country. That is unaffordable for the 37 million Canadians who live in it.
I am not saying the significant levels of spending were not necessary. I do not think anyone in this chamber would say that. However, there is no good reason that the government could not be providing significantly more detail to Parliament about where the money is being allocated and what the money is for. In fact, I would argue that is the bare minimum expected of the Liberal government.
What is greatly concerning to me is that we have seen what happens when the Prime Minister thinks he has free rein to spend money wherever and however he wants, and he gives it to his friends. We have seen that with the WE scandal. We just talked about it in the House. It is exactly the reason that the government needs to be making itself available in the House of Commons proper.
When the Prime Minister thought he could allocate funding wherever he wished, he awarded a sole-sourced contract worth over $900 million to an organization with no real experience at all in managing that kind of massive program. Why was that? We do not know. The Prime Minister has been dodging or ignoring some of the questions from the opposition for over a week now.

Let us review what we do know about this. First, the Prime Minister’s wife is actively involved in WE. Second, the Prime Minister’s mother and brother have received a combined total of close to $300,000 in speaking fees from the organization. I have asked twice in the House, Monday and Tuesday, about the Prime Minister’s mother receiving fees on July 2, 2017, for an event that was funded by the Government of Canada through the heritage department, $1.18 million to the WE organization.
Third, the finance minister has two immediate family members involved in WE.
We learned in the past hour that the finance minister wrote a cheque for $41,000 for illegal travel benefits from the WE organization following two family trips he took in 2017. He repaid the money today, just as he was set to testify at the finance committee. He took the trip in 2017, and today, months later in July 2020, he finally fessed up and wrote that cheque for $41,000. I think Canadians want a new finance minister. That is what Canadians are talking about today, when $41,000 later, he confessed to the WE Charity.
Fourth, neither the Prime Minister nor the finance minister recused themselves from the cabinet discussion about granting WE the $912-million contract. Fifth and last, it is a sole-sourced contract without any competitive process whatsoever.
It is said that if it looks like and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck, and we saw that today from the finance minister at the finance committee here in the House of Commons. On top of that, the Prime Minister and the cabinet have had a long history of this kind of behaviour. Since the current government came to power in October 2015, it has been scandal after scandal after scandal. This is not the first time the Prime Minister, the finance minister or other members of the cabinet have been under investigation for violations of the Conflict of Interest Act.
The 2017 investigation found that the Prime Minister took a vacation to a millionaire’s island with a registered lobbyist and found that he violated four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act. That finding made him the first Prime Minister in the history of this country, in over 150 years, to have been found to violate the Conflict of Interest Act. He was the first ever in 150-plus years.
There was also the scandal in 2017 surrounding the finance minister’s private company that owns a villa in France, which he somehow forgot about. Two years later he did not report that to the Ethics Commissioner. Of course, there was also the clam scam scandal involving the President of the Privy Council, and there are many, many more.
Then of course, who could forget about SNC Lavalin? That was the big scandal in the House of Commons when the Prime Minister improperly pressured the former attorney general into advancing the interests of a private company rather than the public interests. That scandal led to numerous resignations across the government. Some very good cabinet people left the Liberal government and were forced to sit on this side with opposition members.
By my count, there are five different cases where the Prime Minister or a member of his cabinet was found guilty of breaking at least one clause in our ethics law. We found out today we have another one with the finance minister admitting that the WE Charity did take $41,000 in benefits, writing that cheque out today.
The former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson told CBC last week that she thinks it would be difficult for her successor not to find that the Prime Minister contravened section 21. She said that the Prime Minister has a blind spot when it comes to ethics. I would add that the finance minister does as well.
How can Parliament, let alone Canadians from coast to coast, continue to trust that the Prime Minister will be acting in the country’s best interests and handling the unprecedented powers given to him? What does the government do when this issue is raised at committee? We saw that the Prime Minister ignores calls to appear and Liberal MPs filibuster at committee so they can cover up their leader’s tracks.
These are some of the questions that Parliament needs answers for. Unfortunately, we only had two days here on Monday and Tuesday to open Parliament. We had a lot of questions. Some of the answers came this afternoon at the finance committee with that stunning revelation by the finance minister of Canada.