March 3, 2019 1:17 pm
Updated: March 3, 2019 1:56 pm

The West Block, Episode 26, Season 8

Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, March 3, 2019 with Mercedes Stephenson.

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THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 26, Season 8
Sunday, March 3, 2019

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Guest Interviews: Minister David Lametti, MP Candice Bergen,
MP Daniel Blaikie, Susan Delacourt, Joel-Denis Bellavance

Location: Ottawa

Story continues below

Jody Wilson-Raybould—Liberal—Vancouver—Granville: “For a period of approximately four months, between September and December of 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada, in an inappropriate effort to secure a differed prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “That I and my staff always acted appropriately and professionally. I therefore completely disagree with the former attorney general’s characterization of events.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, March 3rd. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

Explosive testimony calls for the prime minister to step down and a cabinet shuffle, all as MPs begin a two-week break away from Parliament Hill.

Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee last week, she experienced “a consistent and sustained effort” by the most powerful people within government, including the prime minister to politically interfere in her decision on the criminal prosecution of the Quebec company, SNC-Lavalin.

Joining me now from Montreal is the Attorney General and Justice Minister David Lametti. Minister, we heard testimony from Jody Wilson-Raybould this week. She alleges that she was under a campaign of sustained pressure for months, that she described as inappropriate. The prime minister disagreed with her assessment. Who do you believe?

Minister David Lametti: Well look, I wasn’t there so I wasn’t privy to any of those discussions. So I can’t really say. I can tell you what they both agreed on, which is both of them have said, my predecessor in her testimony in front of the committee and the prime minister both have said that they felt nothing was illegal and so we can agree on that part of the narrative. As for the rest of it, I can’t say because I wasn’t there.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can something be legal without being moral, though?

Minister David Lametti: The Shawcross doctrine says that the attorney general isn’t an island, that the attorney general can have conversations with his or her cabinet colleagues but at the end of the day, has to make a decision on his or her own. So once again, I can’t put myself into my predecessor’s shoes to know what she was feeling or even to appreciate what others were doing.

Mercedes Stephenson: But Minister, the attorney general in this case had made a decision. This wasn’t consultation in advance of the decision, she’s saying that she told people she thought the pressure was inappropriate, that she had made her decision and that was being pushed to change that decision. Some of things she alleges were said include that any solution would require some kind of interference under the law, that the PMO didn’t want to debate legalities anymore and that there was an election. Are those reasons that you should have an attorney general interfering in a criminal prosecution of a corruption trial?

Minister David Lametti: Right. Again, I can’t speak to how—what people said or how people felt because I wasn’t part of that decision.

Mercedes Stephenson: But if someone approached you and said an election is at stake, would that be a persuasive argument to you?

Minister David Lametti: Well, again, it depends on the context. The leading case from the U.K.—

Mercedes Stephenson: So wait–sorry, just to stop you there but an election could be a reason for an attorney general to interfere in a criminal prosecution. That would be appropriate.

Minister David Lametti: I’m not saying it would be appropriate or inappropriate because I wasn’t there and I don’t know the context. But I will—

Mercedes Stephenson: But how could winning the election ever be, an appropriate reason for an attorney general to intervene in the justice system?

Minister David Lametti: Let me tell you the leading case from the U.K., which went to the House of Lords in 2008, so it’s a fairly recent case. It was the Saudi government putting pressure on Tony Blair’s government in the U.K. Tony Blair as prime minister and other ministers called the attorney general and said if you go ahead with this inquiry, there will be blood in the streets. And the House of Lords found nothing wrong with that and just [00:04:10] it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Are political considerations for a party in power supposed to be something that is considered in our justice system? I mean the cornerstone of democracy in Canada, a big one, is that we have an independent judiciary and now you have cases where a politician is saying she was asked to intervene for political reasons for jobs, not because there was an actual judicial reason and that she believed that was inappropriate.

Minister David Lametti: Again, according to the Shawcross doctrine, in general, political considerations are appropriate for discussion around the cabinet table and therefore with the attorney general—

Mercedes Stephenson: But not after a decision is made.

Minister David Lametti: Well, let me add—again, I wasn’t at any of these conversations so I can’t evaluate the context. I can’t evaluate the language that was used and the manner in which the conversations happened and all of that’s critical, actually, to trying to decipher all of this. But what I can say is that even as attorney general, you do have an ongoing obligation as attorney general in terms of your relationship to prosecutions and the prosecution service to be open to new facts. And so again, I can’t speak to the actual conversations that happened but I know that in principle, an attorney general has to remain open. So in that sense, no decision is ever final.

The other thing to remember in this particular case and in the structure of our law, there is a legal structure in place in which the director of the prosecution service makes an independent decision. If the attorney general in conjunction with cabinet colleagues taking advice, takes a decision to issue a directive, and that directive is legal. So interference is perhaps the wrong word in the sense that it implies that something illegal is going on.

Mercedes Stephenson: But Jody Wilson-Raybould had decided she was not going to do that. I mean that’s what the issue is here. It wasn’t that she hadn’t made her decision and they were lobbying her. She had made her decision. She was asking them to back off but let’s go to you because I understand you weren’t in the room for those decisions.

Minister David Lametti: Right.

Mercedes Stephenson: So you are looking at the possibility of giving SNC-Lavalin a deal now, correct?

Minister David Lametti: I have, as I have said on a number of occasions that is the law. That possibility exists in the law—

Mercedes Stephenson: So why would you decide or—

Minister David Lametti: And that’s not to say—again, I’m just going to add a very important caveat here, because everything I say on this matter will be scrutinized and because there is ongoing litigation, I’m not going to say anything more than what is obviously descriptive, which is I’m up to speed on the file. I appreciate that there is a legal possibility, but I’m not going to say one way or the other that I’m considering it or I’m not considering it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Were you aware when you took the file and became aware that this was a possibility still that your predecessor actually had made a decision on this and that the answer was no?

Minister David Lametti: I had not. I was a Montreal MP as I said, so I was generally aware of the file but I didn’t have any specific knowledge about—well, I mean I had the knowledge that you and I both had, you know, reading the newspapers and seeing what’s out on the media.

Mercedes Stephenson: Would it have given you pause if you’d been aware that Jody Wilson-Raybould had already said no to this, would you have been willing to re-open it anyhow, if you knew that the answer was already no?

Minister David Lametti: Again, I don’t know. At that point, I didn’t know all the facts. At this point, I still don’t know all the facts.

Mercedes Stephenson: Now, you’ve mentioned, you know, and the government has mentioned jobs in all of this and it’s something that the prime minister keeps mentioning and a number of cabinet ministers, but if you read the actual legislation, it says in the case of differed prosecutions for companies like SNC-Lavalin if they are facing the kinds of charges they are, which are corruption, economic considerations are off the table. So why does the government keep using jobs as an explanation if it doesn’t qualify under the current rules?

Minister David Lametti: Well, again, I would just point you back to the rules because once again, anything that I say will get hyper scrutinized. There are a number of provisions in the act which open the possibility for looking at the impact on employees, on third-party contractors, on shareholders and on pensioners.

Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Lametti, thank you very much.

Minister David Lametti: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll hear from opposition MPs for their take on the next steps with the SNC-Lavalin affair.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back to The West Block. Well, the Conservatives are calling on the prime minster to resign and the NDP want a public inquiry. The government is refusing to do either amid allegations of attempted political interference made by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould. The justice committee has been at the centre of the storm investigating what actually happened.

Joining me now to talk about this file is Conservative Candice Bergen and for the NDP Daniel Blaikie. Welcome both to the show.

Minister Candice Bergen: Thank you.

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: We just had an opportunity to listen to that interview with David Lametti. I’d like to start with getting your reaction, Candice, to what he had to say?

Minister Candice Bergen: Well, my first impression was how incredibly evasive he was and didn’t want to answer questions directly. I think some of the very sincere and questions that he should know answers to, I was very troubled by his response to whether political results and election results should be considered when interfering with a criminal trial. And in addition to that, there were some other things that were very troubling. I find it very difficult to believe that when he became attorney general, he was not aware of the decision that the former attorney had made around the DPA. So there are a number of concerns but overall, to me what it looked like is we have a current attorney general who is completely under the thumb of the prime minister. What a comparison between the former attorney general, who is clear, concise, knows the law, is very direct. We heard that in her testimony and David Lametti, who was vague, evasive, didn’t want to give an opinion and I would say he’s doing exactly what the prime minister wants.

Mercedes Stephenson: Daniel?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Yeah, I mean what we need right now from the attorney general in its clarity. It’s what we need from the prime minister, too. And that interview was anything but clear in terms in terms of his answers. And his evasiveness particularly around the question of whether, you know, political considerations were appropriate factors to consider when deciding whether to move ahead with a criminal prosecution or not was troubling. It reminded me, I had the minister of Public Services and Procurement in committee on Wednesday and I asked her repeatedly, directly whether or not she would say that, you know the bribery of public officials is a very serious offence.

Mercedes Stephenson: But what about–?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: And she refused to answer that. In fact, she said the government didn’t have a position on whether or not that was a serious offence.

Mercedes Stephenson: What about the jobs at the end of this? To be fair to the 9,000 people who work for SNC-Lavalin, who are not accused of corruption, who just works for the company, wouldn’t any government try to find some way to preserve those jobs, Candice?

Minister Candice Bergen: Having political interference from the prime minister sustained pressure, threats to an attorney general to change a decision in a criminal trial is never the way in Canada to protect jobs. That is—

Mercedes Stephenson: But should she be able to stand up to that because people have said yes, there is pressure but look, she’s obviously a very strong lady and she didn’t cave to it.

Minister Candice Bergen: Well she didn’t cave to it and she thought after October 19th when it entered the criminal phase and then certainly after Christmas, she thought it was done. But the pressure continued and then when she didn’t do what they wanted, they fired her. That’s what we’re talking about, you know, the pressure was there. She felt it was too severe. She told the prime minister, basically you better step back. He didn’t. The clerk of the Privy Council said to her the prime minister’s in the mood to have his way. They pressured and pressured and she did not succumb to it. And then they fired her and so they’re clearly—they not only overstepped the boundaries, they would very well have been participating in a criminal activity and that’s why we’ve asked the RCMP—

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay and I want to ask about that. You’ve asked the RCMP. The justice committee is doing its thing. There’s a lot of criticism from opposition MPs it wasn’t achieving it. It seems like its functioning now. Your party has asked for a public inquiry, Daniel. What would it achieve that the justice committee is not already doing?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Well look, there’s a couple of things that aren’t working to the extent that we need at the justice committee. The first is that they’ve adopted a very limited scope for their study. So there’s only so many things they’re going to be able to get to the bottom of. But the real problem is the fact that that committee has a majority of Liberals on there and I think for any Canadian listening, I mean that knows that ultimately it’s going to be six Liberal members of Parliament that decide the findings of that committee. They obviously have a political interest in what is said and what the conclusions of that investigation is, so, you know, when you’re talking about ethical standards, whether there’s a real conflict or an apparent conflict, that’s enough. So the idea that somehow Canadians are going to get clarity and walk away feeling like they got the full story from a committee that still has yet to invite a number of key witnesses. So, you know, Gerald Butts was only invited when he asked to be invited.

Mercedes Stephenson: And some of who are going to be coming next week and we’ll get to that in just a moment.

Minister Daniel Blaikie: But there’s, you know, Katie Telford and others that were implicated. Eleven people were implicated—

Mercedes Stephenson: We’ll see if they get anywhere with that but I want to back to that RCMP investigation because it’s not just the Conservatives who’ve asked. There’s also five former attorney generals.

Minister Candice Bergen: That’s right.

Mercedes Stephenson: But Jody Wilson-Raybould herself said that she does not think anything illegal happened so what’s the point of asking for the RCMP?

Minister Candice Bergen: Well, so she was not able to talk about some of the things that happened when she became Veterans Affairs minister as well as around her resignation. So there’s more information that needs to be brought. I don’t think she would say that she’s the beginning and the end of whether it is criminal. It would be for the RCMP to look into. There is enough evidence and enough opinions to say that there could very well be criminal activity that’s gone on. There have been Canadians with far less political connections that have been convicted of this and certainly charged with obstruction of justice than some of the circumstances that we’re seeing now. And because of the evasiveness, we have seen for almost a month, the prime minister changing his story, refusing to answer questions, blaming others and then we heard the testimony of the former attorney general, which was very compelling. It was meticulously documented and it told a story of threats, of intimidation, of pressure from the prime minister and his office. This has to be looked at via the criminal level and the ethics commissioner obviously can’t do that. It would have to be the RCMP. And we really need the prime minister to step aside because it can’t continue—

Mercedes Stephenson: You keep asking for the prime minister to resign but why not let the RCMP finish their investigation, if they even launch one before you jump ahead? Or did you think, Daniel, that that’s a little bit premature?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Well look, I think that it’s up to the RCMP whether or not they launch an investigation but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for people to ask them to and it’s not every day—

Mercedes Stephenson: But what about the prime minister resigning?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: That you get former attorney’s general who do that, so I think that’s a really significant request, whether or not the RCMP ultimately decide whether to investigate.

Mercedes Stephenson: But do you think that the prime minister should step aside?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Well we called for a public inquiry because we think there’s a lot more to know and it may be that once we actually get to the bottom of what’s going on that that is the most appropriate course of action and that we end up calling for that. But right now, there’s a lot of unanswered questions. I think Canadians want answers to those questions.

Mercedes Stephenson: And speaking of those questions, we just have 30 seconds left so very quickly, what do you each hope to hear from the witnesses at committee, including Gerald Butts and the clerk of the Privy Council who will be back this week?

Minister Candice Bergen: Well I would like to hear the truth and I would like to not hear him discredit Jody Wilson-Raybould, which I’m afraid that he might do. But ultimately, we need to hear from the prime minister himself. We need him to testify under oath.

Mercedes Stephenson: Daniel?

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Well we’ve heard the conversations that have happened with Jody Wilson-Raybould. We need to know what the conversations were around those conversations between members of the PMO and what they decided. I’d like to know what the prime minister and Gerald Butts talked about last Wednesday when they talked after he resigned as well and whether they’re just trying to get their stories straight and get on the same page or whether they’re actually going to provide some genuine testimony.

Mercedes Stephenson: We have to wrap it up there because we’re out of time but I’m sure we’ll be talking about this again, next week. Thank you both for joining us.

Minister Candice Bergen: Thank you.

Minister Daniel Blaikie: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll unpack the politics of the SNC-Lavalin controversy and a government in crisis.

[Break]

Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The Liberal government is in crisis as the SNC-Lavalin scandal rages on.

Joining me now to get to the bottom of this story: Susan Delacourt, bureau chief of the Toronto Star and Joel-Denis Bellavance, bureau chief for La Presse. This was absolutely bombshell testimony this week. What kind of effect has it had on the government, Susan?

Susan Delacourt: Well, I’ve been asking around and I find Liberals are quite nervous. Somebody told me a long time ago that Justin Trudeau gets very calm when Liberals are nervous. Justin Trudeau is very calm right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Perhaps too calm.

Susan Delacourt: I think some think. But yes, this week I deliberately went out a lot and reached out a lot to talk to Liberals and they are very nervous about this. One actually said to me, one MP, probably cost us the election. Now that may be really nervous, but I think that there is certainly it wasn’t what they were expecting. I think there had been an expectation among some that the Prime Minister’s Office had this in hand and—

Mercedes Stephenson: It can’t be that bad, right?

Susan Delacourt: Right. And like all of us, I think a lot of Liberal MPs were stunned on Wednesday.

Mercedes Stephenson: What did you make of the government’s handling of it, JD? Did they do a good job?

Joel-Denis Bellavance: No, I don’t think so. The rebuttal has yet to come, I think, in a forceful manner that would compete with the version that Madame Jody Wilson-Raybould offered on Wednesday. And so she came at that committee very well prepared as though she was pleading her case before a judge. So she came with dates, precise details, actors of this soap opera drama and then I think if you talk to the mainstream people, people would see that and the rebuttal that the prime minister offered the same day, at the same night and most people would argue that the former justice minister said the truth, said her truth and so should expect a rebuttal this week from Gerry Butts, the former principal secretary and we’ll see where this will lead. But I can tell you that Liberals are shaking in their boots as a result of this testimony.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and you have quite a cast of characters and if you were going to write a House of Cards episode, I don’t think you could have more powerful people in it. You have the prime minister’s chief of staff, his former principal secretary, the finance minister, his chief of staff, the clerk of the Privy Council. Can Trudeau keep all of these people in these jobs or does someone’s head have to roll, Susan?

Susan Delacourt: Well, again, some of the Liberals, I don’t know whether Trudeau is going to clean house. He’s a loyal person to the people around him. But certainly there are Liberals in this town that this whole episode has given them license to say what they were already annoyed about with the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s insularity, the fact that it’s very hard to penetrate that circle. I think that there’s a way in which Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony has fed into the idea that a law is decided in the star chamber of Langevin Block and that they can’t get in. So her ripping—truly ripping aside the curtain and showing how things work in there has confirmed for some people the idea that that is a closed world. I don’t know how—I’m still trying to figure out how this government operates without Gerry Butts.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think they’re still trying to figure that out, too.

Susan Delacourt: So it does seem they’re going to have to bring in some people from the outside, I would think. But I don’t know who those people are.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: I think it would be hard to clean the house because those key people are key to the election preparedness of the Liberal party. So if the prime minister gets rid of them, he’s got to look around and see who can help him fight the next campaign with the same strategies and vigour of Gerry Butts of Katie Telford. So I think we can expect those people to remain around.

Mercedes Stephenson: JD, how is this resonating in Quebec because we keep hearing SNC-Lavalin is so critical to Quebec? What do Quebecers think of what the government has been saying? This is all about jobs in Quebec, an election.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: I think the Liberals were willing to debate before Madame Jody Wilson-Raybould testified Wednesday. And once she testified, the narrative of the debate has changed a lot in Quebec. Now people are more concerned about the fact that maybe the rule of law was not respected by the entourage of the prime minister and other key people in this government. And so people are worried that maybe they were doing things to help a company that is already facing a lot of corruption charges [00:21:01].

Mercedes Stephenson: And your paper had a report that was pretty damning this week, La Presse about exactly what some of those bribes were. Tell us.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: Exactly. In 2008, SNC-Lavalin paid $30,000 of prostitute services to help curry favour and those services were for the son of Muammar Gaddafi, who was in Canada for three months: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Mercedes Stephenson: Susan, you know, they had a small cabinet shuffle. Can they right the ship at this point and can they keep Jody Wilson-Raybould from going back in front of that committee?

Susan Delacourt: Well first of all, I think people should understand we’ve never seen anything like this. I, again, seeing somebody who has basically imploded the government, sitting still in the front bench of Parliament. I went this week and watched as the opposition, who are her best friends now, they’re portraying her as the hero, and she’s sitting there watching them attack her own government. It’s a strange and—

Mercedes Stephenson: Why didn’t Justin Trudeau just kick her out immediately when she said those things?

Susan Delacourt: Because we’ve seen the reaction to just the idea of her demotion in cabinet, let alone her quitting cabinet. I think he has to worry about that. I will say, I think people should tune in next week, not just for the spectacle of it. A lot of people don’t know Gerry Butts. I think he’s become a mythical figure and a lot of people would like to put devil horns on him. He’s actually an impressive character and I would think that he’s going to be bringing his A game to committee and I think it’ll be very interesting to see people’s reactions.

Mercedes Stephenson: Last few seconds to you, JD.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: If the prime minister takes Madame Jody Wilson-Raybould out of caucus, there may be other Liberals who will follow because she’s got some supporters within caucus. So that’s probably why the prime minister has not decided to do the thing that some Liberals actually are already demanding.

Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, it’ll be another fascinating week in Canadian politics. Thank you to our journos for joining us.

Joel-Denis Bellavance: Thank you.

Susan Delacourt: Thank you for having us.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. We’re always excited to hear from you so please reach out and find us online at http://www.thewestblock.ca. You can also reach us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.

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