The combined role of Canada’s attorney general and justice minister could be separate roles, Jody Wilson-Raybould suggested in her testimony on Wednesday.
Wilson-Raybould, who held the position for about three years before she was shuffled out by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said she believes it’s time the possibility be seriously studied.
“The two hats that the minister of justice and the attorney general wears here in our country are completely different, and I think there would be merit to talking about having those as two separate individuals,” she said.
She noted that she has held this opinion since before becoming attorney general.
The member of Parliament and former Liberal minister made the comments before the House of Commons’ justice committee, where she was answering questions on whether members of the PMO pressured her to intervene in the criminal case of SNC-Lavalin.
WATCH: What was being asked of Jody Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin was ‘unprecedented’
During the testimony, Wilson-Raybould detailed what she described as a “sustained effort” and “veiled threats” to pressure her to intervene to help the Montreal engineering firm avoid a criminal trial.
She said the pressure to politically interfere related to her role as the attorney general.
‘Potential for an inherent conflict of interest’
The attorney general of Canada acts as the chief law officer of the Crown, meaning they act as a solicitor to the Crown in civil matters.
In Canada, whoever the prime minister appoints to the role of justice minister also assumes the role of attorney general.
Peter Graefe, a politics professor at the McMaster University, explained to Global News that the two roles have historically been combined in Canada.
“That’s how we’ve always done it from the very first cabinet of John A. Macdonald,” he said. “I don’t think there is really a stronger argument than that.”
Graefe added there is “some overlap” in the expertise of the two roles, which is why the decision could have been made to assign the roles together.
He noted that a prime minister can talk more freely to a justice minister but has to exercise caution with the attorney general.
“The minister of justice is a cabinet minister in the usual sense, so all sorts of concerns about politics and administration are open season,” he said, noting it would be inappropriate for a leader to talk to the attorney general this openly about cases.
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Osgoode Hall Law School professor Trevor Farrow added that the justice minister is “essentially a partisan role,” while the attorney general is meant to be non-partisan.
“On one hand, you’ve got a minister of justice who is essentially providing advice to the government. On the other hand, you’ve got a chief law officer who is responsible for prosecutions of the country in a way that is meant to be free from partisan politics,” he said.
“Really what we’ve got is a role that has got a potential for an inherent conflict of interest.”
How this ties into the SNC-Lavalin case
Farrow explained it’s this potential conflict the SNC-Lavalin case has brought to the forefront.
“This potential conflict predated this government and it predated the SNC-Lavalin discussion,” he noted.
“I think what the SNC-Lavalin case and the discussions that have come out since have brought to light is that there is clearly at least a potential conflict of interest that is at play when these roles combine,” he said.
During her testimony, Wilson-Raybould touched on the difference between the two roles, saying: “It is well established that the attorney general exercises prosecutorial discretion. She or he does so individually and independently. These are not cabinet decisions.”
WATCH: More from Jody Wilson-Raybould testimony
She said she believes it is appropriate for cabinet “to draw to the attorney general’s attention what they see as important policy considerations that are relevant to decisions about how a prosecution will proceed.”
“What is not appropriate is pressing the attorney general on matters that she or he cannot take into account, such as partisan political considerations, continuing to urge the attorney general to change her or his mind four months after the decision has been made, or suggesting that a collision with the prime minister on these matters should be avoided,” she said.
Could the roles be separated?
Wilson-Raybould encouraged the justice committee Wednesday to study the possibility of splitting the roles among two individuals, and look at other models internationally.
She noted that in the United Kingdom, which has a similar government structure to Canada, the roles are separate. The U.K. has an Attorney General’s Office and a Ministry of Justice.
Farrow said that it would be possible for a government to do this, and that the SNC-Lavalin affair could potentially lead to it.
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“It’s not something that a government would take lightly and it’s not something that a prime minister would do without significant consultation,” he said. “I do believe that it is something a government could do with appropriate consultation.”
Graefe noted that separating the roles would require a legislative change, so it’s unlikely to happen before the October federal election.
“Trudeau probably wouldn’t change it because it would be almost an admission that he made a mistake,” he added. “Perhaps out of this, one of the opposition parties will promise to make the change if elected.”