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Justin Trudeau and WE Charity: yet another political own goal



Where was the adult in the room when the federal cabinet approved the sole-source contract to WE Charity to administer Ottawa’s $900-million student volunteer program?

Of course, this being a pandemic, there was probably nobody in the room. It was likely a secure Zoom-like call. But clearly, the adult in the room wasn’t our 48-year-old prime minister, who’s in his fifth year as leader of a G7 country.

For a long time, I’ve been willing to give Justin Trudeau a bit more slack than many others. Yes, he was the heir to his father’s name and had the good looks and charisma that gave him a huge advantage in today’s image-obsessed world of politics.

Yet these assets can also end up being a liability and from the start, Trudeau has been tarred with being out of his league, a lightweight with nothing but his inherited traits to power his political brand. That seemed to me to be a tad unfair. While no intellectual like his cerebral father, Justin is no dummy, and the Conservatives learned in two consecutive elections that they were foolish to underestimate his considerable political talents.

As prime minister, Trudeau was a breath of fresh air after the controlling, partisan nastiness of the Harper years. From the start, he seemed to sense the country’s desire for a more open, empathetic style of politics. When he strode to Rideau Hall with his gender-equal cabinet, it seemed more than just a photo op.

His cabinets, though not stellar, have been competent, and he has learned how to delegate responsibility to his able Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland. And overall, his government’s policies have been reasonable. Cannabis was legalized and the world didn’t end. After years of oilsands-induced denial under the Harperites, Trudeau at least recognized the dangers of climate change and the need to act. Donald Trump’s insistence on scrapping and renegotiating NAFTA could have ended in catastrophe but Trudeau’s deft handling of the subsequent talks and the US narcissist-in-chief has left Canada in a relatively good position.

And in these awful past several months, Trudeau’s leadership during the pandemic has been solid. Not stellar, but nevertheless impressive compared to the mess south of the border. No ugly squabbles with the provinces, although that’s been at the price of a really national approach to the pandemic. The health response has really been dictated by the provinces.

Where Ottawa has done better is in the economic response, putting together the Canada Emergency Response Benefit quickly and coming to the aid of a myriad of other sectors of the economy.

Yet despite these skills, Trudeau remains a flawed leader, a master of the own goal who manages to miraculously score on himself and emerge surprised that anybody would notice. Three investigations by the ethics commissioner since 2015 and each case was the result of remarkably poor judgment and the kind of governance we thought had ended with the sponsorship scandal.

Yes, the Aga Khan is a philanthropist and spiritual leader, but he’s also one of the wealthiest men in the world whose foundation lobbied the federal government. If you’re trying to demonstrate your humility by eschewing a costly reno of 24 Sussex Drive in favour of moving into the more modest Rideau Cottage, why then take an expense-paid holiday on the Aga Khan’s private Caribbean island?

Although the story was less personal, the SNC-Lavalin affair showed an equally flawed approach, as Trudeau opted to favour a big company with a questionable ethical history over the vital protection of our independent judicial system. And it’s only because of the courage of Jody Wilson-Raybould that we ever discovered the nastiness of what went on.

This latest caper is probably the most disturbing of all. Who in the world could think it was a good idea to give a sole-source contract worth an estimated $19-million to a charitable organization with a history of providing a stream of speakers’ fees and travel expenses to members of the Trudeau family?

If the prime minister was again blind to this conflict of interest, what of the phalanxes of political aides and public servants working for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office? Did anybody there do their job? What about members of the Trudeau cabinet? Were they so afraid of Justin’s wrath that nobody could actually say, “Do you realize how awful this will look to the public?”

As for Trudeau himself, I reluctantly come to the conclusion that he has no ability to see himself as others see him, that he has internalized this idea that he is above suspicion because he is working so hard to make the world a better place alongside his wife, his mother and his brother. And if the fabulous Kielburger twins see the world in the same way to the wonderful Trudeau clan, who could possibly object to their being asked to helped out with another laudable goal—helping students during a pandemic?

Perhaps with the abrupt end to the WE Charity contract, Trudeau can staunch the bleeding and survive. But his prime minister-ship remains forever tarnished. And it was all so unnecessary.



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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June



The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.


(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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Belarusian President signs decree to amend emergency transfer of power



Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a decree allowing the transfer of presidential power to the security council if he is murdered or otherwise unable to perform his duties, state Belta news agency reported on Saturday.

Lukashenko said in April he was planning to change the way power in Belarus is set up.

Previously, if the president’s position became vacant, or he was unable to fulfil his duties, power would be transferred to the prime minister until a new president took oath.


(Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Scottish nationalists vow independence vote after election win



By Russell Cheyne

GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) -Pro-independence parties won a majority in Scotland’s parliament on Saturday, paving the way to a high-stakes political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the result meant she would push ahead with plans for a second independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic was over, adding that it would be absurd and outrageous if Johnson were to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.

“There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson, or indeed for anyone else, seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future,” Sturgeon said.

“It is the will of the country,” she added after her Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned for a fourth consecutive term in office.

The British government argues Johnson must give approval for any referendum and he has repeatedly made clear he would refuse. He has said it would be irresponsible to hold one now, pointing out that Scots had backed staying in the United Kingdom in a “once in a generation” poll in 2014.

The election outcome is likely to be a bitter clash between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson’s United Kingdom-wide administration in London, with Scotland’s 314-year union with England and Wales at stake.

The nationalists argue that they have democratic authority on their side; the British government say the law is with them. It is likely the final decision on a referendum will be settled in the courts.


“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Johnson told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Alister Jack, the UK government’s Scotland minister, said dealing with the coronavirus crisis and the vaccine rollout should be the priority.

“We must not allow ourselves to be distracted – COVID recovery must be the sole priority of Scotland’s two governments,” he said.

The SNP had been hopeful of winning an outright majority which would have strengthened their call for a secession vote but they looked set to fall one seat short of the 65 required in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, partly because of an electoral system that helps smaller parties.

Pro-union supporters argue that the SNP’s failure to get a majority has made it easier for Johnson to rebut their argument that they have a mandate for a referendum.

However, the Scottish Greens, who have promised to support a referendum, picked up eight seats, meaning overall there will be a comfortable pro-independence majority in the Scottish assembly.

Scottish politics has been diverging from other parts of the United Kingdom for some time, but Scots remain divided over holding another independence plebiscite.

However, Britain’s exit from the European Union – opposed by a majority of Scots – as well as a perception that Sturgeon’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis well, along with antipathy to Johnson’s Conservative government in London, have all bolstered support for the independence movement.

Scots voted by 55%-45% in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, and polls suggest a second referendum would be too close to call.

Sturgeon said her first task was dealing with the pandemic and the SNP has indicated that a referendum is unlikely until 2023. But she said any legal challenge by Johnson’s government to a vote would show a total disregard for Scottish democracy.

“The absurdity and outrageous nature of a Westminster government potentially going to court to overturn Scottish democracy, I can’t think of a more colourful argument for Scottish independence than that myself,” she said.

(Writing by Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill;Editing by Gareth Jones, Helen Popper, Christina Fincher and Giles Elgood)

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