THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 27, Season 8
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guest Interviews: Minister Karina Gould,
Minister Pierre Poilievre, Minister Peter Julian,
Mike Van Soelen
Gerald Butts, Former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister: “When you boil it all down, all we ever asked the attorney general to do was to consider a second opinion.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “There was an erosion of trust between my office and specifically my former principal secretary and the former minister of justice and attorney general. I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have known.”
Andrew Scheer, Conservative Party Leader: “Two weeks ago, after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s detailed and compelling testimony to the Justice Committee, I called on Justin Trudeau to resign. I stand by that call today: a prime minister, who can’t manage his own office, let alone the affairs of a great nation.”
Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leader: “There is a company that reached out directly to the Prime Minister’s Office to get laws changed, criminal laws changed, so that they would be off the hook and off of criminal responsibility. All of this cuts to the core of what democracy should not be.”
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, March 10th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
It has been another explosive week in Ottawa as the SNC-Lavalin scandal continues to grow with a second high profile minister resigning from cabinet and the prime minister refusing to apologize for his handling of the controversy.
Last week, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, gave his side of the story to the Justice Committee, rebutting what former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould alleged that the Trudeau government made a sustained and consistent effort over months to inappropriately pressure her for political and electoral reasons, asking her to stop the criminal prosecution of the Quebec based company, SNC-Lavalin.
Joining me now to talk about the non-apology press conference and the allegations is the Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould, who is in Burlington today. Welcome to the show, Minister.
Minster Karina Gould: Thanks for having me, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: The prime minister didn’t apologize, which a lot of people were expecting him to last week. Do you think that he should have apologized, Minster Gould?
Minster Karina Gould: Well, I think that the prime minister said what needed to be said in the sense that he took responsibility for the breakdown in communications between his office and that of the former attorney general, and he talked about the fact that, you know, there is much that he can learn from this experience and to improve on. And, you know, I think that that’s really important and I think that, you know that will be important for us all to move forward, to ensure that, you know, we’re reviewing how offices interact with each other. And he also mentioned that he’ll be bringing in external experts to look at a number of things, including the breakdown in communications.
Mercedes Stephenson: But do you think that it went beyond that? Do you think that he needed to deliver an apology?
Minster Karina Gould: No, I think that, you know, he’s been talking about this the whole time from his place of understanding of what happened and now that he’s heard, you know, from both Ms. Wilson-Raybould as well as, you know, Mr. Butts and the clerk and the deputy minister of justice that, you know, he’s been able to hear all different sides of the story and, you know, his reaction to that is to say okay, clearly, you know, there was a breakdown in communication. You know, we weren’t necessarily communicating and understanding each other so how do we ensure that we manage that appropriately and be able to move forward so that something like this doesn’t arise again.
Mercedes Stephenson: Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, testified that he didn’t believe there was a problem here until Jody Wilson-Raybould was being shuffled out of her dream job. Do you believe that she only came to the conclusion this was a problem essentially out of sour grapes or bitterness when she was being moved into a job she didn’t want?
Minster Karina Gould: Well look, that’s a question that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have to answer. I wouldn’t want to, you know, try to think or, you know, dream of what she is expressing or thinking about. That’s really something that she’ll have to answer. I think one of the things, though, is that it’s clear that, you know, there were a number of conversations that happened and two very different perspectives of how those conversations rolled out. And one of the things that I can say is that as a cabinet minister, you know, whenever I’ve asked to speak with either the Prime Minister’s Office or the prime minister, I’ve always gotten a response. I’ve always been able to have very candid conversations and have always felt that they’ve been very, very respectful.
Mercedes Stephenson: But do you think that if someone tells the prime minister they’ve made a decision, tells his staff they’ve made a decision repeatedly and they still keep getting pressure to change that decision, that goes beyond what’s appropriate pressure and verges into inappropriate, especially when you’re talking about a criminal prosecution?
Minster Karina Gould: Well, I think it’s a really interesting question that’s raised because as cabinet ministers, we face a range of pressure on many different issues every single day. And part of our responsibility, and in fact, our duty, is to listen to different perspectives, to understand and appreciate different angles because ultimately the decisions we make, it’s not actually about us, it’s about 37 million Canadians and the impacts that it’s going to have on them and their lives. And so it’s, you know, it’s quite normal for us to have many different discussions on any given topic because that’s democracy, right? We should be having these really difficult robust conversations.
Mercedes Stephenson: And that might explain Jody Wilson-Raybould, but how does that explain Jane Philpott? She was explicit in her letter that she said she believed the government had lost her confidence in its ability to govern and that this was an issue of personal values and ethics. That seems to go beyond a breakdown in communications between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Gerald Butts. That would suggest that someone as a very respected minister thinks that something wrong was going on here.
Minster Karina Gould: So again, those are questions that you would have to ask Ms. Philpott, because it’s not up to me to get inside her mind and what she’s thinking. All I can do is—
Mercedes Stephenson: Did her letter raise concerns for you?
Minster Karina Gould: Speak for myself and for my—well speak for myself and my own experience. And I can say that I continue to have full confidence in the prime minister and our government.
Mercedes Stephenson: So her letter didn’t raise any questions for you about staying in the government?
Minster Karina Gould: This has actually been a very collaborative, engaging cabinet and I, you know, have tremendous confidence in my colleagues and really appreciate the frank conversations that we’re able to have and I think that Canadians expect us to have because ultimately—
Mercedes Stephenson: But her letter, Minister, didn’t raise any questions for you?
Minster Karina Gould: These jobs are not about us.
Mercedes Stephenson: Her letter did not raise any questions for you?
Minster Karina Gould: No, I—No. Because I can only talk about my own experience and as I’ve said, you know, any time that I’ve sought out the prime minister or his staff, I’ve always had very respectful conversations and of course, there’s moments when we disagree. But we talk about those things and that’s what any team does. I mean that’s, you know, we’re running a county here so of course there’s going to be many different perspectives and many different issues at hand, and we’re constantly engaging in those conversations. That’s the beauty of democracy is that we try to persuade each other through words and reason as opposed to force.
Mercedes Stephenson: I’d like to ask you about something that is directly on your file and that’s elections. And you’ve talked about the importance of free and fair elections, especially the one coming up. Michael Wernick is supposed to sit on the committee that makes sure there’s not electoral interference, but after the clerk’s appearance in committee, a lot of MPs are questioning his impartiality. Are you revisiting whether or not he should be a person who sits on the committee that determines whether or not there is electoral interference?
Minster Karina Gould: So one of the reasons why we created a panel was specifically so that it wouldn’t be up to any one individual. So, you know, Mr. Wernick as clerk of the Privy Council, the deputy minister of justice, of global affairs, public safety and the national security and intelligence advisor, will all be making those deliberations together. And—
Mercedes Stephenson: But should he be on that committee, Minister?
Minster Karina Gould: I think it’s really important to remember that, you know, these are some of Canada’s top civil servants who have served governments, both Liberal and Conservative and have done so—
Mercedes Stephenson: So you’re not revisiting whether or not he should be on it?
Minster Karina Gould: With incredible integrity and, you know, that’s why we have five people on there so that they can have those conversations, because it’s not specifically about preventing foreign interference. It’s about alerting Canadians, should something happen, and that they will be alerted and aware to make an informed decision.
Mercedes Stephenson: We do have to wrap it up there, Minister, because we’re out of time. I’m sorry, but thank you so much for your interview today. I guess you guys are not revisiting that, but we’ll come back to it again in the future. Thanks for joining us.
Minster Karina Gould: Always happy to chat. Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll get reaction from the Opposition on their demands to hold the prime minister accountable to be transparent over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Late last week, the Opposition demanded an emergency meeting of the Justice Committee, to have former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould appear before that committee again. This after testimony last week by the prime minister’s former principal secretary contradicted much of what Wilson-Raybould had said.
The Justice Committee has been one of the most stunning moments of this story have unfolded so far. Joining me now to answer questions about this, we have Pierre Poilievre for the Conservatives here in Ottawa and out in Burnaby, we have Peter Julian from the NDP.
I want to know—you’ve heard from Jody Wilson-Raybould and people are saying, look, she came and said her peace. Why does the Justice Committee and why do Opposition MPs want to see Jody Wilson-Raybould back before that committee again?
Minister Pierre Poilievre: Two reasons. Reason number one: PCO clerk, Michael Wernick was invited back for a second time, to contradict previous statements by the former attorney general. That is a courtesy that Jody Wilson-Raybould has not been extended. And secondly, Trudeau limited what she could say. He banned her from speaking out about anything that happened after she was moved out of the role of attorney general. And we know that there were material events that occurred leading up to her resignation about which she has so far been banned from speaking. So our message as Conservatives is lift the full gag order and let her complete her full testimony so Canadians know what happened.
Mercedes Stephenson: Peter, now when Gerald Butts appeared and when the clerk of the Privy Council appeared, they were both under the same ban. Why do you want Jody Wilson-Raybould to come back? From the NDP perspective, what is it that you’d like to ask her?
Minister Peter Julian: Well, I was in the room when she gave her very compelling testimony. It’s very rare that you see somebody before a committee who just in a very honest forthright way answers all of the questions that she could answer. But was very careful about what she could and what she couldn’t answer. And I would have to agree, I think most parliamentarians and most Canadians want to see Ms. Wilson-Raybould give her full testimony and be able to tell us exactly what happened without the gag order that Mr. Trudeau has imposed. And the reality is, she has been by far, the most credible on this issue and how carefully she has rolled out and the evidence that she has presented. It is very important, I think, for Canadians to get to the bottom of this. We need to have her back in front of the Justice Committee, and as Jagmeet Singh has said a number of times, we need to have a public inquiry into the extent of this scandal.
Mercedes Stephenson: Pierre, when Gerald Butts testified, some of what he read were text messages. It didn’t sound like Jody Wilson-Raybould was very upset in those. It sounded pretty friendly. Was there anything in his testimony that raised doubts for you about whether or not the pressure was inappropriate or if she was simply being asked to reconsider?
Minister Pierre Poilievre: There was nothing in his testimony that caused me to think that, no. In fact, Jody Wilson-Raybould specifically says that on September 17th, she told the prime minister—she said, I looked the prime minister in the eye and asked him if he was interfering with my role as attorney general. And he was forced to back off. Now he and Butts go out and say she never once raised any concerns. Well, I looked him straight tin the eye and said are you interfering with my job? Sounds like a concern to me. Neither Butts, nor Trudeau have specifically denied that she said that. They just make a sweeping broad statement that she never raised any concerns. It sounds—
Mercedes Stephenson: But if under—
Minister Pierre Poilievre: It sounds to me like Trudeau is stating a falsehood when he claims she never raised any concerns.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think the prime minister is lying?
Minister Pierre Poilievre: It seems that way. And he refuses to say whether or not the September 17th exchange happened the way she described. He—she’s been asked in a press conference yesterday about that and he just simply dodged the question. But he continually states falsehoods in this regard that we know are not true. Yesterday, another falsehood, he claimed that SNC could leave Canada altogether if prosecuted. Well we know that’s impossible because—
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you know that’s impossible?
Minister Pierre Poilievre: Because the company has a $1.5 billion loan agreement with the Case Depot requiring its headquarters stay in Montreal, whereby the way just signed a 20-year lease and is in the process of renovating its bureau for its 2,000 employees there. We also know that it has roughly $52 billion worth of construction contracts that have to be done in Canada. So it is completely impossible that the company would up and leave. And what I want to know is did the prime minister or anyone else lie to Jody Wilson-Raybould in an attempt to force her to sign a differed prosecution agreement on the fly, based on false information. Because if they told her—
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, I want to give Peter a chance to get in here, though.
Minister Pierre Poilievre: They told her look, you have to sign immediately or the company will move its headquarters. And we know that’s impossible. Then that would be a falsehood.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well we don’t know that they said that, though. So I want to give Peter—
Minister Pierre Poilievre: Although she’s testified they have.
Mercedes Stephenson: I want to give Peter a chance to get in here. Peter, when you look at this, you know, one of the elements we heard in the testimony is that there can be a differed prosecution agreement right up basically until this ends in a trial. So, why not expect the attorney general to keep an open mind until you get to that point? Isn’t it a little bit premature to make a decision within a few months?
Minister Peter Julian: Well I think the issue here is that we have a former attorney general, who is very clear that she received a variety of veiled threats and subsequently lost her job as minister of justice and attorney general. That is extraordinarily bad and inappropriate behaviour by the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office. Now the jobs argument is simply a smoke screen to try to hide this inappropriate behaviour because as every Canadian is now finding out, there is a binding agreement with the Quebec Pension Plan that obliges SNC-Lavalin to stay in Canada for another half decade. So that jobs argument is simply ridiculous. It’s a smoke screen. What we have is systematic pressure that was put on the attorney general in a very inappropriate way, and the reality is the decision was made. The former attorney general was very clear in communicating that and we had bad, inappropriate behaviour from a wide variety of actors in the Prime Minister’s Office and the prime minister himself. This is something that needs to be subject to the scrutiny that comes with a public inquiry. And that’s why a number of people, including Jagmeet Singh, have called for that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Pierre, Prime Minister Harper claimed that he did not know anything about his former chief of staff cutting a $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy. It’s not unusual that prime ministers don’t always know exactly what their political staff are doing. You seem to believe he did. You seem to believe you’re very committed to this. How far are the Conservatives willing to go to force this issue? Are you willing to try to shut down Parliament? Are you willing to protest with votes? What are you going to do to try to stand up to this?
Minister Pierre Poilievre: We will use every parliamentary tool in the toolkit to require the prime minister answers questions about the falsehoods that he appears to have stated. The prime minister, once again, made the phony jobs claim yesterday. We know that that claim is false, so we want to know, given that it wasn’t about jobs, given that he has provided no evidence that jobs would be lost, who was he really trying to protect by shelving this prosecution?
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, we have to wrap it up there but we’ll certainly be coming back to it.
Minister Pierre Poilievre: Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: And I appreciate both of you taking the time to be on the show today. Thank you.
Minister Pierre Poilievre: Good to be with you.
Minister Peter Julian: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, just how much of a political crisis is the government facing over the SNC-Lavalin controversy?
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. It’s been just over a month since the SNC-Lavalin affair first broke, and it seems to just keep getting worse for the government. So how has the prime minister, his office and the Opposition managed the political crisis in the weeks since then?
Joining me now from Toronto to discuss is Mike Van Soelen, he’s worked for the Conservatives, both federally and provincially and now he’s a strategist for Navigator Limited, a consulting company based in Toronto. And you often hear Navigator’s name when there’s a crisis. So I’m curious to know, Mike, when you take a look at how the prime minister has handled this and his office, what grade would you give them?
Mike Van Soelen: Look, it has been a very bad four weeks. The fact that we’re still talking it now says the prime minister, the Liberal government, hasn’t done very well. When you’re in a crisis, what you want to do is you want to shut it down. You don’t want a crisis to go on. You don’t want it to go two days, much less four weeks. So that sort of speaks to where they’ve been. They just haven’t been able to provide a narrative that satisfies Canadians, satisfies the media, the Opposition, to answer the questions that have been raised very credibly by Jody Wilson-Raybould. So, they find themselves in a difficult situation and the answers have been lacking, I suppose has been judged by Canadians. And as well the efforts to change the channel to do a Pharmacare announcement and speak about space haven’t been enough to be game changers to move this crisis to the rear view mirror.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well, and last week a lot of people thought maybe this is the moment. Maybe they’re going to turn the ship when the prime minister appeared in front of a room full of journalists to give a press conference. We were told he might sound contrite. He did not seem very contrite. He did not apologize.
Mike Van Soelen: No.
Mercedes Stephenson: He only spoke about this erosion of trust as he called it between the former attorney general and his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts. What should the prime minister have said if that was not enough?
Mike Van Soelen: Look, I think the day before Gerald Butts had at least provided sort of a credible accounting of events as to what happened and I think it was the prime minister’s job to move to an end game strategy. He should have—there’s a couple of things he could have done. He should have said—I think he needed an action plan. He needed to sort of drive home that this crisis—it was time to change the page. So separating the roles of attorney general and justice minister, perhaps having the current attorney general, Mr. Lemetti, say that they were not going to—no longer going to pursue a prosecution—a differed prosecution agreement. He could have as well brought in a—named a chief justice. He talked about having different leaders that he would consult, but why he didn’t name who those individuals actually were is puzzling. And then frankly, he could have been contrite about some of the mistakes that had been made and we didn’t hear that from the prime minister on the day. So really, he went back to the same story they’ve been telling all along, which hadn’t worked for four weeks so it’s hard to understand why they thought it would work on this morning.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that he has to say the words, I’m sorry or I apologize or does he have to fire senior people to make this go away?
Mike Van Soelen: I think he almost has to do all of it. I think he should let the clerk of the Privy Council go, whose performance has been panned, I think, by everybody who’s watched it. He needs to be contrite because clearly, the country has been thrown into a bit of chaos for the last four weeks as a result of this. And some pretty big issues: questions of rule of law, the meting out of justice, the separation between the political and the judicial spheres of government. I think he needed to present an action plan to show that he’s taking it seriously, that he’s contrite and recognizes mistakes where they’ve been made, and then ask Canadians if they’re ready to move on from this matter.
Mercedes Stephenson: How do you think the Opposition has done on this? I mean Andrew Scheer came out and he called for a police investigation, but then he went all the way towards saying the prime minister should resign. Did he jump the shark there a bit in going with the resignation that soon?
Mike Van Soelen: There was risk that he did get over his skis in asking for the resignation as early as he did, but the truth is that the government needed to shut down the crisis. If the next day the government had tied a nice bow on it, presented a narrative that made sense and Canadians were ready to move on, then I think Andrew Scheer would have looked like he’d gotten ahead of himself in calling for the resignation so early. But given he asked for the resignation almost two weeks ago, the crisis continues, I think it looks like a good move by Andrew Scheer.
Jagmeet Singh has been, you know, sort of absent on this crisis. I think he’s still finding his feet around Ottawa. Some of his committee members have done a pretty good job of prosecuting the different people who’ve come to committee, but really, it’s been Andrew Scheer and Lisa Raitt and Pierre Poilievre who’ve also, I think, sort of been the leaders in prosecuting the government on this file.
Mercedes Stephenson: What advice would you give to the prime minister and what advice would you give to the Opposition in the weeks ahead?
Mike Van Soelen: For the prime minister, I think he needs to come up with the end game strategy. How is going to tie a bow around this? How is he going to answer the questions that are left unsettled? How is he going to say it in a way that gives Canadians confidence? He understands the gravity of the charges that have been made, that he’s taking it seriously. I imagine Canadians would like to move on from this story themselves, so he needs to present a plausible story and explanation of what they’re doing, what happened and show that he’s ready to move forward.
The Opposition, I think, it’s in their interest to keep prosecuting the government on this. There’s a lot of questions that are unsettled. There’s a real demand now for Jody Wilson-Raybould to come back because Gerry Butts got into parts of the timeline that she hasn’t been able to speak to. So I expect the Opposition will continue to persecute the government—I’m sorry, prosecute the government on this matter, and as long as they can keep this story alive, that’s exactly what they will do.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay, Mike that’s all the time we have today. But thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Mike Van Soelen: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for joining us. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, see you next week.