COMMENTARY: Phone call leaves Liberals’ SNC-Lavalin narrative — and excuses — in complete tatters
At this point, it’s probably safe to say that the federal budget did absolutely nothing to help turn the page on the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Mind you, the federal budget was a rather forgettable dud, all things considered. However, it’s hard to see what the Liberals could have jammed into the budget that would have prevented Friday from being the unmitigated disaster that it was for them. If we are indeed turning pages on the SNC-Lavalin affair, it’s because the story has become quite the page-turner.
For those who want “turn the page” to mean the end of the story, though, that was always wishful thinking. Friday put that notion to rest once and for all.
We knew that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould had submitted materials to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights after the Liberal majority on the committee had decided against calling her back as a witness. It was obvious from her initial testimony that she had ample notes on what had occurred on this file, but I’m not sure any of us were expecting to hear a phone conversation between Wilson-Raybould and clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick.
The phone conversation is devastating to the Liberal narrative around this scandal and vindicates virtually everything Wilson-Raybould laid out in her testimony.
It is immediately clear from the outset of the conversation that the prime minister had a preferred outcome on the matter — specifically, that the company be provided the option of a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA); that the attorney general was being pressured to adopt that same view and intervene accordingly; that the attorney general had, in fact, made her decision; that the attorney general was very uncomfortable with and upset about the undue and inappropriate pressure she was under; and that her ability to continue as attorney general may be in jeopardy if she refused to alter her approach.
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Of course, the Liberals have tried to suggest the exact opposite. We’ve been told that the prime minister did not expect a certain outcome, that Wilson-Raybould did not make it clear that she had reached a decision, that Wilson-Raybould had not voiced any concern about inappropriate pressure, and that Wilson-Raybould was not demoted over this issue. Those denials fly in the face of everything we heard on that recording.
The clerk, who’ll be stepping down as of April 19, makes it very clear very early on that the prime minister is “very firm” and in a “pretty firm frame of mind” on this matter and wants to know why a DPA isn’t being used. Wernick states that he is “worried” about the prime minister and attorney general being at “loggerheads.”
For her part, Wilson-Raybould makes it clear that she views those “worries” as a sign that she could be removed as attorney general (fears that would be confirmed just a few weeks later), a view that Wernick does nothing to dissuade her from. These certainly come across as very thinly-veiled threats, contradicting Wernick’s own testimony in which he flatly denied there were any threats, implied or otherwise.
The lies and the coverup may prove to be more damaging than the central allegation at the heart of this story. But taken together, it’s most troublesome.
Perhaps the Liberals could have opted for the “of course we pressured her and ultimately demoted her because we wanted to save 9,000 jobs at SNC-Lavalin” defence right from the outset, but that would have essentially confirmed the entire story. Let’s not forget, the prime minister initially insisted that the entire story was false. As it turns out, insisting the story was false was, in fact, false.
Of course, all of the spin about jobs ignores the very serious nature of the charges the company is facing and the fact that economic considerations — for example, job losses — are not to be a consideration in assessing the very legal question of how to proceed.
The OECD recently took the extraordinary step of warning the government of Canada of its international commitments under the Anti-Bribery Convention and the importance of political and economic issues not coming to bear in foreign bribery investigations and prosecutions. The director of the public prosecution service understood that. The former attorney general understood that. It is most unfortunate that so many others in government did not.
I don’t know how the Liberals plan on spinning all of this, but it’s now abundantly clear that there is “much more to this story,” as former cabinet minister Jane Philpott recently suggested. It’s also abundantly clear that any call to “turn the page” on this matter is self-serving partisan nonsense.
A meaningful investigation into this matter is urgently needed.
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