The obvious lessons Justin Trudeau keeps failing to learn

Tired, wired and operating with the fail-safes turned off, team Trudeau made a big mistake. And it had an awfully familiar feel to it.
Prime Minister Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Freeland, Minister Blair, Minister Lametti and MP Joel Lightbound make an announcement regarding gun control in Canada. May 1, 2020. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

By the time the Trudeau government decided the WE Charity should administer a program worth hundreds of millions of dollars in stipends to students who wanted to volunteer for other charities, the apparatus of the Canadian federal state was running way over its normal capacity.

There may be no precedent for the speed at which the Trudeau government, not renowned for its decisiveness, was suddenly making momentous decisions. A major new federal program can take a year or more to develop, debate, prep and troubleshoot. Take pharmacare and marijuana legalization as examples of how things usually go. Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Eric Hoskins, a former Ontario health minister, in June 2018 to come up with options for a federal pharmacare program. Hoskins submitted his report a year later. A year after that, there’s still no pharmacare program, nor was anyone really expecting one yet. A 112-page report on cannabis legalization was published in November 2016. In the spring of 2017, the Liberals tabled a bill to give the policy effect in the House of Commons. Pot wasn’t fully legal until the end of 2018.

The ship of state is no speedboat. And that’s usually a good thing, because haste makes for error.

But the global coronavirus outbreak put entire populations in danger. Keeping Canadians safe meant keeping them at home and shutting down much of the economy as a consequence. Dozens of new support programs were needed to ensure careers and businesses could go on hiatus without triggering waves of bankruptcies. Trudeau was announcing new programs every morning in front of his Rideau Cottage residence. Much of the criticism from opposition parties accused the Liberals of moving too slowly.

It was an environment ripe for trouble.

“I’ve seen a lot of decisions made, big decisions, in rapid-fire time,” one staffer to a cabinet minister told Maclean’s. “Huge programs, multi-billion-dollar programs have been put together really fast. The idea being that there was no time to wait.”

Public servants and political staff were working from home like everyone else. Interactions that would normally be easy had to be shoved through the same narrow pipeline of Zoom calls that have complicated life everywhere.

Structures were streamlined. Usually government business goes through a series of cabinet committees. At least one committee checks another’s work, questioning its assumptions, before a project goes to the full cabinet for what is almost always a final perfunctory green light. But in March most of the committees were shut down, leaving only the powerful Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee on the Federal Response to the Coronavirus Disease.

READ MORE: Pulling off a bureaucratic miracle: How the CERB got done

The coronavirus committee has Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as its chair and Jean-Yves Duclos, a former Laval University economist with a lower public profile, as vice-chair. Ideas for new support programs would come from that committee, bureaucrats would be tasked with figuring out how to implement the ideas, and the resulting product would go to full cabinet, sources familiar with the government’s crisis management say. A crucial step, oversight by a second cabinet committee, wasn’t available.

Tired, wired and operating with the fail-safes turned off, team Trudeau made a big mistake. The new Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) would be administered by WE, which isn’t so much a traditional charity as a complex web of holding companies pursuing both charitable and profitable ends, administered by Toronto’s telegenic Kielburger brothers. WE’s fitness to run the CSSG would come under withering scrutiny, forcing the Kielburgers to withdraw from the agreement, abandon federal money paid up front and promise a thorough corporate restructuring.

And the fitness of Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau to sign off on the CSSG deal in the first place came under question, too, when it became clear both men and their families had long histories of close relations with WE. Trudeau’s mother and brother had chased speaker fees from various parts of the WE empire. Morneau’s daughter had worked at WE, and the family had travelled to Kenya and Ecuador on trips for which WE did not expect to be paid and that Morneau didn’t reimburse until the eve of his July testimony to the Commons finance committee.

Both Trudeau and Morneau are now under investigation by the federal ethics commissioner, not for the first time. Both have apologized for not recusing themselves from the decision to seal the WE deal. The WE fiasco has become the latest episode to rattle many Canadians’ faith in Justin Trudeau’s ability to run an efficient and irreproachable government. By late July, public opinion polls were showing a discernible dip in voter satisfaction with Trudeau, though probably not enough to endanger his re-election chances, should the opposition parties even work up the gumption to force an election.

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One question the latest mess raises is, if Trudeau and Morneau can’t be trusted to notice conflicts of interest the size of barn doors, shouldn’t somebody else in their offices keep an eye out? Rachel Wernick, the senior bureaucrat who helped design the CSSG program, told the Commons finance committee that spotting conflicts of interest isn’t the public service’s job. Political staffers should be the ones keeping an eye out for political problems, she suggested.

One long-time politician Maclean’s interviewed had the same opinion. “Political staff are important in protecting their ministers who are dealing with and inundated with this crisis,” this veteran observer said. “And therefore it’s up to political staff to flag things like potential conflicts of interest, bring them to their minister’s attention so they can have a discussion both around perception and reality.”

If it were all just a sloppy bit of program design in the midst of unprecedented crisis, the WE mess would be bad enough. What makes it worse is the weary sense of déjà vu it provokes. This doesn’t feel like a random Trudeau screw-up. It feels like a highly characteristic Trudeau screw-up. It’s the sort of thing the Prime Minister does now and then.

Ethics commissioners Mary Dawson and Mario Dion have already found he twice contravened the federal conflict-of-interest law, first for his secret family vacation with the Aga Khan, then for sending wave after wave of staffers and factotums to sway Jody Wilson-Raybould in her capacity as attorney general in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Dawson, now retired, has said Dion is “fairly certain” to find Trudeau guilty yet again.

It’s becoming part of the lore of this government that nothing the hapless opposition parties do or say about Trudeau can damage his reputation as consistently as the decisions he makes. And to the extent that WE illustrates what’s become a reliably flawed governing style, its characteristics are worth examining, because Trudeau seems unwilling or unable to change his ways. The strain and rush of crisis didn’t make him do anything out of character, in other words: they made him act on instinct in familiar ways.

What are the elements of the Trudeau governing instinct?

First, a tight decision-making circle. Decisions are made “by a very small, very centralized group that very closely surrounds the Prime Minister—and at times acts as a barrier to others trying to get in to see him,” one former Liberal MP says. “MPs are often among the last to know about significant policy changes or new ideas.”

Trudeau’s MPs would hardly be first to complain that the Prime Minister is less than accessible. But Trudeau himself acknowledged, during the SNC-Lavalin crisis of 2019, that he had become too distant from cabinet and caucus members, and he pledged to change that. Instead, most of the staffers who were influential on the SNC file kept positions of influence in Trudeau’s government, led by his chief of staff, Katie Telford. The former Ontario provincial government staffer is now the second-longest-serving chief of staff since the position was created for Brian Mulroney in 1984. Only Jean Pelletier, the glowering and efficient chief of staff to Jean Chrétien, lasted longer.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in the House of Commons on May 13, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

After the 2019 election resulted in Liberal losses and a minority government, Trudeau seemed intent on making real changes to the structure of his government. There was an unusually long transition between the first and second Trudeau governments, lasting more than a month and presided over by women Trudeau trusted but hadn’t worked with closely: former justice minister Anne McLellan and Isabelle Hudon, a Montreal business leader who now serves as Canada’s ambassador to France.

That process led to one big change: the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as deputy prime minister, the first cabinet minister to carry that title since McLellan had served as Paul Martin’s deputy in 2005. Trudeau didn’t want to be the centre of attention all the time, people familiar with the 2019 transition said. Freeland was supposed to pick up some of the slack. That was indeed the way it worked out. For a while. But the new year brought a string of crises that left no room for a self-effacing Prime Minister: the attack on a Ukrainian airliner with hundreds of Canadian passengers in January; the national rail shutdown by protesters proclaiming their support of Indigenous rights in February; the COVID-19 crisis since March.

So power is right back where it always was, with Trudeau, Telford and a small cadre of loyal advisers. Freeland has had to admit she played no meaningful challenge function on the CSSG project, even though the committee she presides was part of its genesis.

Muscle memory has proved sturdier than superficial institutional reform. This is not entirely surprising. There are former senior Trudeau government staffers who delayed career decisions through the post-election transition and then handed in their resignations when they decided the new government would function too much like the first instalment.

The government “has no COO,” or chief operating officer, one long-time Trudeau adviser tells Maclean’s, speaking on condition of anonymity. Freeland was meant, in her new role as Trudeau’s deputy, to be a utility player, more or less active on files in ways that would vary with her interests and the needs of the moment. She doesn’t play any kind of central coordinating role over the bulk of the government’s activity.

RELATED: What Chrystia Freeland’s real role will be

Telford is the right-hand adviser of a Prime Minister who’d stand a good chance of winning his third consecutive election if forced into one, so any blanket condemnation of the system she presides over should be taken with a grain of salt. But Telford is said to be reluctant to drive processes to decision, and loath to let a major decision get made outside the PMO.

Cabinet ministers, almost all of whom were freshly elected rookie MPs when they entered government in 2015 or 2019, have very little decision-making autonomy. Ministers’ offices are expected to seek layers of approval for any action or statement—from their own department, from the bureaucracy’s central Privy Council Office and from the political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office. That’s a formula for delay, gridlock and groupthink, the tendency for dissenting voices to be mistrusted or discredited.

The Trudeau brain trust has had to learn to be zen about public criticism after it makes a decision because it has so little patience for private criticism during the decision-making process. Internal dissenters are at best gently mocked. Cyrus Reporter, the Ottawa lawyer who served as Trudeau’s chief of staff while the Liberals were in opposition, was sometimes called “the disapproving uncle” for his habit of pointing out the downside of the latest scheme. (Reporter worked in the Prime Minister’s Office for several weeks after the 2015 election, returned to his law practice and volunteered on the 2019 election in a senior role. He has not been shunned or excommunicated.) Scott Brison, whose job as treasury board president was to guard against foolish expenditures, was described by the chief of staff to another minister as sounding like the trombone voice of grown-ups in old Peanuts cartoons. You shouldn’t do that, womp-womp-womp. At different times, Stéphane Dion and Jane Philpott were criticized for being overly harsh in their criticism of other ministers’ work at cabinet. Eventually, in different ways, both Dion and Philpott were no longer at the cabinet table.

So it’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that the WE deal didn’t get its tires kicked thoroughly around the cabinet table. Tough questions aren’t conspicuously rewarded in this government.

Co-founders of WE Craig and Marc Kielburger are seen on stage during WE Day California in Inglewood, California, U.S. April 25, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

What is rewarded, consistently, is a certain quantum of showbiz razzle-dazzle. Some of the most poignant testimony the finance committee has heard as it investigates the WE mess came in late July from Rahul Singh, the founding CEO of GlobalMedic, a Toronto-based international relief charity whose stated mission is to be “an efficient aid agency that delivers the maximum amount of aid with a minimum operating cost.”

GlobalMedic retooled quickly to deliver crisis relief within Canada during the COVID-19 lockdown, and Singh testified he was able to identify more than 800 volunteer positions that could have been filled by students receiving CSSG grants. So on April 22, the day the program was announced, he called the PMO to let them know. He didn’t hear back from WE, in its capacity as CSSG administrator, until June 15. GlobalMedic was no closer to getting its students enrolled for CSSG stipends when WE pulled out of the scheme on July 3. By the end of July he still hadn’t heard from the minister responsible for administering the CSSG, Bardish Chagger, about what will happen in the wake of WE’s withdrawal.

GlobalMedic is an established charity with excellent connections, including in Liberal Ottawa. Singh moved fast and in the spirit of the program. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that his only mistake was to not be a Kielburger, with a long history of delivering a rock-star spotlight and adoring audiences to various generations of Trudeaus and Morneaus. This was reminiscent of the ease with which the Aga Khan managed to turn Justin Trudeau’s head with the offer of a tropical vacation in 2016. Every politician strives to be just like the rest of us. Trudeau seems to have a particularly hard time remembering that part.

Repercussions from the WE affair will take months to play out. As soon as word of the Kielburgers’ deeply intertwined relationship with the Trudeau and Morneau families became headlines, the brothers undertook a radical overhaul of their family business, bringing in outside consultants to design changes in WE’s mandate, structure and transparency. So one question we’re left with is this: will Justin Trudeau make comparable changes to the way he runs his family business? Does he even have it in him?

This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Justin Trudeau’s flaw.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.