July 21, 2020 / 7:21 PM / 23 days ago

Trudeau ethics probe to draw more scrutiny to Canada's COVID-19 spending

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s third ethics probe in as many years will bring greater parliamentary scrutiny to his government’s COVID-19 spending, analysts said on Tuesday, as polls showed him losing gains made while managing the pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada July 13, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable/File Photo

Trudeau’s Liberal Party was soaring in polls earlier this month after having shoveled more than C$210 billion in direct emergency aid out the door in less than four months and as Canada got the coronavirus outbreak under control.

But the tide turned quickly after Canada’s ethics commissioner put the prime minister under investigation for breaking conflict-of-interest rules when his government tapped WE Charity Canada, which had paid significant speaking fees to his mother and brother in recent years, to run a C$900 million student grant program.

“It’s very hard to play politics with the pandemic,” said David Coletto at Abacus Data, whose poll this week showed the Liberals had lost four points since the previous survey in June, though they still lead the Conservatives. “But an ethics scandal is music to (the opposition’s) ears.”

After several months of lockdown, Canada is gradually opening up again. The sense of urgency has passed, Coletto said, making way for additional scrutiny that will slow the creation of future COVID-19 aid or stimulus.

“The nature of this crisis is no longer, Move fast!” he said. “Public appetite for a slower, more deliberative process is higher now than it was.”

Trudeau lost his majority in parliament in October and depends on opposition parties for support. The latest ethics scandal has united those three parties — at least temporarily — and they have opened their own investigation in the House of Commons finance committee.

Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, whose daughter works at WE Charity, have been called on to testify to the committee. Morneau is due to appear on Wednesday. Trudeau has yet to say whether he will go.

The government “did have a bit of a free ride for a long time,” said Garry Keller, a former senior conservative staffer who is now vice president at Strategy Corp, a public affairs consultancy. “Now the opposition can control the agenda.”

The shift was evident. The House of Commons, which has been mostly closed during the pandemic, has been open this week so the government can pass changes to its wage subsidy program. But Trudeau’s ethics have been the heart of the debate.

“Justin Trudeau cannot be allowed to sweep this latest scandal under the rug,” Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said Monday in the House. “We are going to use every tool at our disposal at the various committees.”

Peter Donolo, vice chair at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and previously the director of communications for former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, said there will be additional scrutiny for many months to come.

“I’m quite confident that within the year, (the opposition) will be going through this stuff with a fine-tooth comb,” Donolo said. “It’s irresistible. ... It was evident from the beginning that when you spend that kind of money, there’s going to be spillage.”

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Leslie Adler

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