A WEe Conflict of Interest

As many Canadians have become aware in the past week, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau is currently under investigation for a possible conflict of interest in awarding an extraordinarily lucrative contact to a not-for-profit that in the past has paid substantial amounts of speaker fees to both his mother and brother. The PM Trudeau for reasons that are still a mystery did not recuse himself of the decision in awarding a whopping $912 million dollar contract to the WE charity.

Conflicts of interest are commonplace in all countries. The need for businesses both profitable and not-for-profit to have decisions made in their favour pressures those with authority in these organizations, to exert influence upon those making the decisions that affect them. It is a fundamental human behaviour and one which can only be managed through objective oversight.

The influencing of politicians to go along with a vote in parliament, or typically awarding government projects to friends who have paid for campaigns is as old as perhaps government and politics itself. When the WE charity paid for PM Trudeau’s mother to speak at their events, it was certainly not intended so that this essentially pandemic project would be awarded to them. There was no intention on their part for this and given their role it would be difficult to say that a large government contract was their motivation. In this way, it was not akin to what some private sector actors are known to do in providing payments to family and friends for the right decisions. Nevertheless, the fact that PM Trudeau’s very own mother benefited greatly can be said to influence a decision to the extent were recusing yourself is warranted. Whereas the WE charity never hired the mother of PM Trudeau so that this pandemic related contract would be awarded, there was sufficient influence to sway a decision. Is the WE charity the best organization for the role that it has been given? Certainly. This decision, however, should have been made by far more objective government staffers. That they would have made the same decision does not mean the act of recusing oneself should not have been done.

The topic of influencing politicians is an interesting one and the influencing certainly does not go in one direction. Some international political thinkers have posted about whether there is a difference between paying $20 to each villager for a vote in the “developing world”, to the promise of thousands in tax benefits for a vote in the “developed world”. Hard to see a practical difference. A union boss may after a night out or the typical side benefits, some tangible some not, may offer to push for support to a union several thousand members strong. The other side is equally as susceptible to coercion, whether it is a large annual donation, gifts, nights out, those influencing politicians offer then what they subsist on, votes or the means to get them. Donations and gifts turn into the opportunity to speak with the politician and that can translate into real action and tangible outcomes. The game is so dirty Henry Kissinger once said: “Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation”. A soft bit of realpolitik.

There is also the matter of foreign influence when a foreign entity exerts influence on a sovereign government for much of the same reasons as companies do locally. The same methods are used, direct payments, non-monetary favours, or indirect benefits such as a gift to a loved one who then passes on a strong suggestion to their child the politician. The widespread practice indicates it is effective or it would not be continued. Foreign influence, unlike standard corruption, has really nothing which stops a visit home overseas becoming an initiation into benefits for sharing information, or for favourable decisions. Nothing is out of reach so long as the person can keep their silence up.