In other words, did WE finish our PM? Our political spin doctor offers his appraisal.
[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]
Dear Dr. Steve,
The Liberal government is taking a lot of summer heat for the WE scandal. Will this one have legs?
As the cynical old saying has it, no good deed goes unpunished. It’s like Halloween where you hand out candy, but if you don’t do it right, they egg your house. And now here was our prime minister, trying to hand out $900 million to the nation’s youth and winding up with a veritable omelet on his face.
But there’s another truism that says political scandals are tailor-made for particular individuals. The misdeeds that really pop are the ones that seem to make for a snug fit. For Trudeau, the WE scandal is like a bespoke suit. It features his secular brand of pious sanctimony matched with arrogance, presumption, and for that piece de resistance, a pocket square of hypocrisy.
At first blush, the scandal appears particularly Canadian — not about misappropriated funds from a mobbed-up paving contract, but about the choice of administrator for a national student volunteer program. Surely, it’s just about good intentions gone wrong, yes? Just poor Prime Minister Jean Valjean, persecuted for stealing bread to feed the needy?
But Les Miserables would be a different story if Jean Valjean was in charge of the city flour supply, and every loaf in Paris ended up in the hands of various Valjeans. WE is a group with strong ties to the Trudeau family, having employed both Sophie Gregoire and Margaret Trudeau. And there were no bids put out on the massive contract, despite doubts in some quarters about the suitability of the organization for the role. Trudeau promptly cancelled the contract and went before cameras to apologize for his lapse in judgment. But it offered yet another example of questionable behaviour from the man who brought you the SNC-Lavalin scandal, among other hits.
Donald Trump cheats at golf. It’s who he is. In a more complex way, the WE scandal will strike many as being a glimpse into Justin Trudeau’s very soul — a surface of sunshine and rainbows with some grubby soil underneath. There is a sense that an unshakable belief in his own righteousness allows Trudeau to cut himself plenty of slack on ethical considerations. The prime minister probably looks into the mirror each morning and sees a human Hallmark Movie-of-the-Week. But Canadians feel like they are watching a different movie, and it’s one they’ve seen before.
As for WE itself, much has been written recently not just about their influence but their considerable real estate assets, and the disturbing fact that their entire board of directors resigned this spring.
Calculated or not, establishing a relationship with young Justin Trudeau years ago was a savvy move for WE. It’s an inescapable truth about charitable organizations that, regardless of their cause, they are organizations first and foremost. And it’s a rare organization that does not eventually become dedicated to self-perpetuation. It starts out with faith, hope and good works, and then somewhere along the way you find yourself hiring mercenaries to defend the Papal States. Or the Toronto equivalent.
Beyond the details, the obvious political question here is whether anyone is paying attention. In this it seems the world of sports may offer some clues. The pandemic has provided a measure of just what activities one can be made to care about in the absence of the usual stuff. Dr. Steve has lately been glued to the Major League Soccer tournament. This has been a surprise to Dr. Steve, since MLS has previously appeared to him as akin to Triple A baseball, and he has paid it roughly the same amount of attention. Now though, facing a dearth of options, he is riveted. Similarly, it is entirely possible that the WE scandal might gain more traction than expected simply because it’s a choice between that and watching the Pro Scrabble circuit or a high school archery tournament.
On the other hand, the NHL, the NBA and Major League Baseball are coming back soon. Likewise, larger political spectacles will soon arrive. In fact, the Conservatives may well undermine their own attempts to spotlight the WE issue, simply by getting some heat going in their underwhelming leadership race. You’d think it has to get some attention eventually. So far, it’s been the equivalent of a 3 a.m. rerun of an arena football game. But at some point, the leadership contest could turn into a genuine tennis match, perhaps a mixed martial arts cage brawl, a fiery NASCAR pileup, or even a Houston Astros-style cheating scandal, any of which would at least prove to be a distraction for popcorn-crazed political junkies.
This is not to say the prime minister will be able to shrug off the WE debacle. Why, Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole calls it “the biggest scandal in Canadian history!” (The Liberals will now probably support O’Toole for the leadership — it will be a bonus to have an Opposition leader who has already forgotten SNC-Lavalin.) But even assuming O’Toole goes on to loudly demand resignations from Justin Trudeau, Sophie Gregoire, Margaret Trudeau and Kenzie the First Dog, the Liberals should not get too smug. Scandals like this, the ones that seem to fit a pattern, tend to accrete. Even when the substance is forgotten, the impression remains.
Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that foreign media, should they look at this affair at all, will be apt to snicker. “Canadian prime minister in hot water for botching handout to student volunteers. Meanwhile Donald Trump funnels $400,000 of campaign money into his own pockets and commutes the prison sentence of his personal political attack dog, while a member of his own family describes him as a racist psychopath. Never change, Canada!”
And somewhere in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau nods into the mirror. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t.”
Working in the PM’s favour is the low importance of ethics in today’s public life.