Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Opposition parties are poised to approve a parliamentary probe of the Trudeau government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic despite growing objections from industry and experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Opposition parties are poised to approve a parliamentary probe of the Trudeau government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic despite growing objections from industry and experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Liberals face probe into pandemic response after losing House vote

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner accused the Liberals of trying to trigger an election

Opposition parties won their bid Monday to launch a probe of the Liberals’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic following a week of parliamentary turbulence over how to review their management of the crisis.

MPs from all four opposition parties voted to pass a motion that orders the Trudeau government to turn over to the House of Commons health committee all records on a raft of issues related to the coronavirus response.

The move by Conservative, Bloc Québécois, New Democrat and Green MPs, plus one Independent, comes five days after the government survived a confidence vote on a previous Conservative motion that would have created a special committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption.

The more recent motion zooms out from the WE controversy to focus more broadly on Ottawa’s reaction to COVID-19, but the probe can still examine documents tied to the embattled charity.

Canada’s procurement minister warned that an investigation would jeopardize federal contracts for personal protective equipment, vaccines and rapid test kits, as it could trigger the release of commercially sensitive information, scaring off manufacturers and drug companies that would otherwise do business with Ottawa, Anita Anand said.

“It’s not just a question of violating existing contacts that, for example, may have confidentiality clauses in them; it’s also a question of undermining current negotiations,” she said at a news conference.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the warning “utterly false” given the carve-outs for matters of national security, personal privacy and commercial sensitivities.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner accused the Liberals of trying to trigger an election, though the government followed through on its pledge not to treat the motion as a confidence matter.

The stakes were markedly lower than last week, when a somewhat similar Conservative motion to probe alleged Liberal corruption was defeated after political brinkmanship resulted in a confidence vote that corralled the New Democrats into backing the Liberals to avoid sending Canadians to the polls.

READ MORE: Liberals warn PPE contracts would be jeopardized by probe of pandemic response

Pfizer Canada was the latest company to express concerns about the probe, asking how the pharmaceutical giant’s commercial secrets will be protected.

In a letter to a senior Health Canada official obtained by The Canadian Press, Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow said his company has questions about a requirement in the motion that the government produce documents related to the production and purchase of a vaccine for COVID-19.

He went on to say that while the company is seeking legal advice, it wants to hear from Health Canada what process will be used to vet sensitive information before it is released to the committee.

Anand cautioned that the House of Commons law clerk “wouldn’t have the necessary expertise in procurement” to properly redact records that would surface through the probe. “And yet the law clerk will be the one making all decisions regarding redaction,” she said in French.

Rempel Garner responded that the government was “proactively calling pharmaceutical companies and fearmongering” over the weekend.

The role of the law clerk, whom she said the Liberals were “attacking,” is precisely to ensure that sensitive information is not released unduly, Rempel Garner said.

The New Democrats and Bloc Québécois have insisted there is sufficient protection for industry while accusing the Liberals of stoking fears.

Separately on Monday, New Democrats and Liberals seemed prepared to compromise on a different path for the government to turn over documents about the WE controversy, before a committee vote unexpectedly killed the move.

The Liberal government has gone through months of political turbulence over an agreement that would have seen WE Charity manage a multimillion-dollar grant program for students who volunteered during the pandemic, which has since been cancelled.

Multiple members of the Trudeau family, particularly the prime minister’s mother and brother, have been paid fees to appear at events for the charity launched by Toronto’s Craig and Marc Kielburger.

NDP and Liberal MPs on the House of Commons ethics committee voted for a compromise amendment from NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus. It narrowed a request for Trudeau family speaking records to only those pertaining to the prime minister and his wife, excluding his mother and brother. But a final vote on the amended motion failed 4-5 after Bloc MP Julie Vignola opposed it.

Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien later said in French that Vignola cast her vote against the motion due to a “translation problem.”

The NDP wasn’t buying it.

Angus said he felt “gobsmacked” and “very frustrated,” calling the Bloc’s translation explanation “ridiculous.”

“They voted to kill this investigation into the prime minister,” Angus said in a phone interview.

“I don’t think we’re going to get those documents now,” he added.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett, who put forward the failed motion, said in an email the Liberals “will do everything they can to hide the arrogance and entitlement of this prime minister.”

Christopher Reynolds and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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