WE all fall down: the Kielburgers and Liberal ’whataboutism’

Tying other parties to WE won’t work unless opposition politicians or their relatives took money for their appearances. But that’s not discouraging the Grits.
The Kielburger brothers introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa in 2015.(Adrian Wyld/CP)
Co-founders Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger introduce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa on November 10, 2015. The former chair of WE Charity’s board of directors says the board was explicitly told that speakers at the organization’s popular youth events known as ’WE days’ were not paid for speaking. Michelle Douglas, who resigned in March from the board of WE Charity, who is testifying today at the House of Commons finance committee, and says the board made direct inquiries about whether speakers for WE days were paid, and says the organization’s executive director assured the board that they were not. WE organization confirmed earlier this month it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s family. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Grasping for any available defence or deflection from Justin Trudeau’s WE scandal, government MPs relied on a familiar approach, a Liberal security blanket of sorts: Stephen Harper whataboutism.

The retort of “your side sucks too” is more typically the refuge of hyperpartisan trolls on social media. But the tweeted and hashtagged tit-for-tat games now tend to bleed into our legislative debates and hearings, so politicians who should know better engage in logical fallacies, too. They respond to charges of Alleged Misdeed du Jour by dredging up Alleged Misdeed de 2008, or raise 2015’s Seemingly Innocuous Occurrence.

At the Commons finance committee, Liberal MPs routinely tried to “Whatabout” the Conservatives over their governing days and other opposition parties’ involvement with WE Charity and WE Day. The Kielburger brothers gamely played along.

RELATED: Every important number in the WE drama that’s consuming Ottawa

“To your knowledge, have federal Conservative MPs or ministers or prime ministers or individuals who are affiliated with the Conservative Party or any other opposition party appeared at WE events and/or hosted WE events?” Québec MP Annie Koutrakis asked, as though the mere presence of individuals with the Trudeau surname at the motivational student days at hockey arenas was the pit and prune juice of the Liberals’ current ethical mess. In her followup question, the Liberal went further: “Specifically do you recall being hosted at 24 Sussex back in April of 2013 after WE day in Ottawa?” The Harper days!

Craig and Marc Kielburger went on a name-dropping spree: Laureen Harper did host a WE reception at the Prime Minister’s residence; Alberta Conservative MP Mike Lake had been on WE-sponsored stage to discuss autism and his son; Peter MacKay’s spouse Nazanin Afshin-Jam spoke, conservative Prairie premiers Scott Moe and Brian Pallister were great supporters—and on the other side of the spectrum, provincial NDP leaders Rachel Notley and Wab Kinew in various capacities, too. “Truly we appreciate that the issue of service isn’t a political issue, we hope shouldn’t be a political issue—that every party believes in getting youth to volunteer and serve,” Craig replied to Koutrakis’ gently lobbed questions.

When Sean Fraser, a Nova Scotia Liberal, asked about WE programs with the past government, Craig got to mention former Conservative ministers Tony Clement and Jim Flaherty, and offer this conveniently selected factoid: “There’ve been previous years in the previous government under Harper where we actually had a higher percentage of our total budget given by the federal government than last year under the Trudeau government.” That’s an assertion which attempts to tiptoe past the fact that it wasn’t last year that Trudeau’s cabinet directed the operation of a hastily designed $543.5-million program (including up to $43.5 million in administration payments) to the Kielburger-led charity.

RELATED: Five takeaways from the Kielburgers’ testimony

The other politicians or spouses weren’t paid for their involvement with the organization that had long stated it didn’t pay for appearances—except to a select few speakers who do “auxiliary” events alongside WE Days, including Justin Trudeau’s mother and brother Sacha. So the potential conflicts of interest don’t apply, despite the strained parallels the governing MPs attempt to make. “I’m wondering if Mr. Lake, Madame Harper, Mr. Pallister—were they paid by your organization or did they engage you with a half-billion dollar contract?” Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked during the committee. (Craig, in a non-answer, replied that he really appreciates their work, all the same.)

Linking politicians of all stripes to WE does serve to remind the public of the charity’s longstanding reputation for good works, to which leaders across Canada and across decades have sought to attach themselves. Stephen Harper was also happy to associate himself and government grants with the Aga Khan, years before Trudeau accepted a helicopter lift to the philanthropic religious leader’s private island. With the Aga Khan, as with WE, sharing a stage is not the same as landing oneself into an ethics investigation for sharing much else.

Trudeau himself had played this bit of WE whataboutism earlier this month in House of Commons debate, so what about the likelihood he does so again when he faces the Commons committee?