How much more of the SNC-Lavalin scandal can the Liberals take? The matter has derailed their agenda for almost eight weeks. It keeps chugging along, superseding the budget and now the federal carbon tax (in effect as of Monday, in case you forgot) as a news story.
It has provoked the resignation of two cabinet ministers, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, as well as the PM’s chief adviser, Gerald Butts, and the clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. And in an homage to Watergate, we now have a tape featuring Wernick and Wilson-Raybould doing a pas-a-deux around the core of this whole affair: prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.
On the recording, Wernick clearly articulates that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants the deferred prosecution agreement done “one way or the other.” Just as clearly, Wilson-Raybould articulates that the pressure being applied is inappropriate and constitutes political interference. The implication of their exchange is clear. The PM lied when he said that Wilson-Raybould never conveyed that she felt pressured. “Oh, if she had only come to me,” he sorrowfully intoned at many a subsequent press conference.
It’s now clear that Trudeau’s emissaries knew full well of her discomfort, and that nothing would be achieved by going to the very person who was demanding that she do what she knew to be wrong.
Wernick also warns, “It is not a good idea for the prime minister and his attorney general to be at loggerheads. … I am worried about a collision then because he is pretty firm about this. … I just saw him a few hours ago, and this is really important to him.”
WATCH BELOW: Will the Liberals kick Jody Wilson-Raybould out of caucus over recording?
Then, near the end of the conversation, Wilson-Raybould tells Wernick she’s waiting for “the other shoe to drop. … I am not under any illusion how the prime minister has and gets things that he wants. … I am just stuck doing the best job that I can.”
It’s clear from these remarks that both parties understand the implications of Wilson-Raybould’s refusal to do Trudeau’s bidding: that she may not be AG in the not-too-distant future. Which is likely why she taped this conversation in the first place, even though doing so may not have been ethical. She assumed that if she was ejected, the next AG would likely grant the DPA, and she wanted to have on record the fact that she had objected to it, as the country’s top legal authority.
Why would Wilson-Raybould think such an act might be imminent? It may indeed all come back to then-Treasury Board president Scott Brison. The phone call with Wernick took place just one week after Brison made known, on Dec. 12, that he was going to leave cabinet and not run again in the next federal election. This would necessitate a cabinet shuffle — and opened a door to the prime minister. In our Parliamentary system, he has the power to choose his cabinet based on whatever criteria he deems appropriate: experience, competence, regional balance, gender balance, the colour of someone’s shoes. Or, the propensity to do his bidding on a certain file.
And that’s what ended up happening. Anyone who thinks Wilson-Raybould wasn’t shuffled out of her role because she had become a stumbling block to Trudeau’s SNC-Lavalin agenda is just as naïve as the person who bought the PMO’s line this weekend, that Wernick never apprised the PM of his conversation with Wilson-Raybould because people were on holidays. (You’d think there was a limit to how many people Trudeau can throw under the bus, but apparently, it’s a very big bus.)
Yes, the prime minister was attempting to circumvent the rule of law. And with someone less principled or relevant than Wilson-Raybould, he might have succeeded. Unfortunately for him, she brought not only a strong sense of justice to the role but an agenda. She wanted to advance Indigenous issues, both in the courts and in cabinet. She believed that Trudeau shared that agenda. Her very appointment suggested as much: she was the first woman of First Nations descent to serve as justice minister and attorney general. She thus felt secure in standing her ground — until it became clear, in exchanges like the one she recorded, that she wasn’t.
But the real lesson here isn’t that the PM is a hypocrite about feminism, Indigenous rights (cue the Grassy Narrows donation quip) or that he is a liar who tried to cover up what he did (pressure the AG inappropriately through multiple channels). It’s that he can’t get things done.
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The unfortunate truth is that any other prime minister in Trudeau’s shoes, facing the possibility of a major corporation leaving the country — worse yet, leaving Quebec, his home province and one where the loss of every head office is a national crisis — would have likely done the same thing. He or she would have tried to get a DPA by whatever means possible — even if that meant having an inappropriate conversation with his AG.
Just this weekend, reporters dredged up former PM Brian Mulroney’s memoirs, which detail his intervention in the case of David Milgaard, at the time serving a life sentence for rape and murder. After meeting with Milgaard’s mother, Mulroney says he ordered then-AG Kim Campbell to review the case, despite her reluctance to do so. Milgaard was ultimately found to have been wrongfully convicted. If a PM would do that for a wrongfully convicted man, where no political capital was at stake, but a matter of human decency, is it unreasonable to assume a future PM wouldn’t do it when the fate of a big party donor, the ire of Quebec Inc., the spectre of 9,000 lost jobs and the votes attached to the entire mess were hanging in the balance?
Not a chance. And if it didn’t work with one AG, then find another. How do you do that without making waves? Answer: a lateral move. If Trudeau really wanted to get Wilson-Raybould out of cabinet, he should have given her responsibilities on par with, or close to, those she currently had. There were a few legal minds he could have swapped her out with: Francois Philippe Champagne, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities; Carla Qualtrough, at Public Services and Procurement; and Dominic Leblanc, Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade, the latter being one of Trudeau’s chief allies in the government. He could have even put her in Treasury Board, if he had not wanted to move someone else.
Instead, Trudeau demoted Wilson-Raybould to a less prestigious cabinet position. Worse yet, he initially gave her the one job — Indigenous Services — she had previously said she, as a First Nations woman, could not accept. So not only is Trudeau arguably revealed to be an arrogant liar, he is an incompetent arrogant liar, which is arguably even less deserving of the mantle of prime minister.
In many ways, the mismanagement of the SNC-Lavalin file embodies the overall failure of Trudeau’s government. Over the past four years, the Liberal leader’s modest deficits have ballooned into structural ones; his aboriginal agenda lies in tatters; his roll-out of legal pot is a patchwork mess; his international reputation has taken a beating; his signature carbon tax has been rejected by four of the 10 provinces; and his “sunny ways” proved to be no more than showboating.
In the 2015 election, Conservative ads mocked Trudeau as being “not ready” for government. It turns out, sadly, that they were right.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.