THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 50, Season 8
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guest Interviews: Jody Wilson-Raybould, Shachi Kurl, David Coletto, Barry McLoughlin
Mercedes Stephenson: On this Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes full responsibility for the SNC-Lavalin affair but refuses to apologize.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau’s former Attorney-General and the person at the centre of the storm, joins us to talk about the bombshell report from the ethics commissioner.
Then, in just over two months, voters will decide who the next prime minister will be. Will the latest revelations cost Justin Trudeau and the Liberals at the ballot box?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I’m not going to apologize for saying…”
And “sorry”, as Canadians like to say a lot, why won’t politicians utter this five-letter word when they’ve done something wrong?
It is Sunday, August 18th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.
The damming report last week by the ethics commissioner found the prime minister violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence then-Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould on the SNC-Lavalin differed prosecution agreement. He found that was for partisan political reasons. The Opposition has forced the ethics committee to return to Ottawa on Wednesday. Will they vote for more hearings and a further probe?
Here’s what the prime minister had to say about the report late last week.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I take full responsibility. The buck stops with the prime minister, and I assume responsibility for everything that happened in my office. This is important because I truly feel that what happened over the past year shouldn’t have happened.”
Jody Wilson-Raybould has been at the centre of all this all and the former Attorney-General joins me now from Vancouver. Welcome back to the show.
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve said that you would like to hear an apology from the prime minister. What specifically do you want him to apologize and what difference would it make at this point?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I’ve said all along and have presented what happened, and it was confirmed by the ethics commissioners report a couple of days ago that there was wrongdoing here, that the Conflict of Interest Act was violated. And what I’ve said all along, is that I think it’s important when something is done that is wrong that you apologize for it and not apologize to me, but apologize to Canadians. And so we can begin to start rebuilding trust.
Mercedes Stephenson: The ethics committee is set to meet on Wednesday. The Opposition wants them to open a probe into this to call the ethics commissioner. Do you think your former Liberal colleagues will allow that to go ahead and should it?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I am not sure what the committee will decide. I leave it to them when the committee hearing’s set to make that decision. I think that the commissioner’s report was very clear, open and transparent and reflected on the true facts of what happened in this matter. And it was, as I said a number of times, a validation for the office, the independent office of the Attorney-General and the director of public prosecutions.
Mercedes Stephenson: The Opposition has been calling for the RCMP to investigate this. The report, of course, came out earlier this week. The RCMP then issued a statement saying they were looking at everything that was out there and would take appropriate actions. Have you been contacted since that by the RCMP?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I haven’t been contacted by the RCMP since they issued their statement, but I will say that I have been contacted by the RCMP and that occurred last spring.
Mercedes Stephenson: What did they ask you about?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I’m not at liberty to talk about what we spoke about. That’s confidential, so I’ll leave it at that.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are you aware of whether this is part of an active investigation?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: No. I’m not aware of anything of that nature. I am aware that the committee members and various public officials and politicians have been asking for a potential investigation. But again, I only can speak for what I know and the relevant facts that I’ve been privy to in terms of this situation and I trust in the RCMP to take the action they deem appropriate.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know some people wonder, this is the first time we’ve heard about that contact. Why is that?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I was asked a question about it. I felt that I—you mean in terms of being contacted by the RCMP?
Mercedes Stephenson: Yeah, because there’s been so much a demand for it and this is the first time that we’ve actually learned that you have been interviewed by the RCMP and so I’m just trying to get a sense of the timeline on when that happened.
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well as I said, I’m not going to get into talking about what I discussed with the RCMP. Just to say that I have been contacted by them and any other questions in that regard should be referred to them.
Mercedes Stephenson: I know previously you’ve said you don’t think that anything criminal occurred here. Is that still your belief?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well again, I had the opportunity to speak to this yesterday. I believe—I can only pass judgement on what I know, information that I have been privy to. Certainly, I look to the RCMP to continue to do their job, however they deem appropriate. But since the report of the ethics commissioner has come to light which had for me some revelations in it, I am sure that they will take the course of action again, that they deem appropriate.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you know if the RCMP has contacted anybody else?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: I have no knowledge about that.
Mercedes Stephenson: When you look at the prime minister’s logic here when he says that this was about jobs and he was trying to do the right thing. Do you think that that’s an appropriate reason and justification for his actions?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I think that jobs are important. I think that all Canadians and politicians think that they’re important. But in this particular case, we’re talking about the nature of our democracy, where we’re talking about upholding the rule of law and having a sound basis of good governance. That’s incredibly important for making decisions about, for example, the economy or jobs. And I would say that having a solid basis of good governance and a rules based order is the exact environment that would attract, for example, private investment and private investment in turn creates jobs. But we as a country have to be constantly vigilant about having and upholding the rule of law and the independence of our institutions.
Mercedes Stephenson: This is now twice that the prime minister has been found to have breached the Conflict of Interest Act. Do you think that that says something about the way he does politics or his character?
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Well, I believe fundamentally, I have from day one, in the importance of doing politics differently, of being open and being transparent. And in order to do politics differently, and to make decisions that are open, is to ensure that those decisions are being based on principles and values, and that people can entrust in their public officials to make those decisions that uphold the rule of law and that ensure that the very nature of our democracy is not undermined for political gain. That’s a general statement. But I believe that that is a fundamental basis for our democracy.
Mercedes Stephenson: Jody Wilson-Raybould, thank you for joining us.
Jody Wilson-Raybould: Thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: We reached out to the RCMP and asked if they had interviewed anyone on the SNC-Lavalin case, or if they have opened an investigation. Their response: “The RCMP is examining this matter carefully with all available information and will take appropriate actions as required.” That, by the way, is the same thing they said last week. They also said, “It would be inappropriate for us to provide any more comments on this matter at this time.”
Up next, do scandals like the SNC-Lavalin affair make a difference when voters cast their ballot?
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. By the end of last week, most polls showed the Liberals had narrowed the gap with the Conservatives. Some even showed a slight lead for Justin Trudeau and his party after taking a hit earlier this year on the fallout of the SNC-Lavalin affair. But, will this resonate with voters in October? And are elections won or lost on this kind of a scandal?
Joining me now is Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute. She’s the executive director there and also David Coletto of Abacus Data. The big question coming out of all of this, of course is, is this a ballot box issue? Are people going to vote on what they’re seeing with the SNC-Lavalin affair at this point, David?
David Coletto: Well, in our polling, we asked Canadians what issues are going to drive your vote. And as of last week, before what came out earlier this week came out, only about 18 per cent of Canadians said ethics and government or accountability and government was one of the five issues that were going to drive their votes. So, we don’t know whether this week’s events elevate that up higher. But it didn’t appear that ethics was going to be the core issue. Other issues like climate change, cost of living, other pocketbook kind of issues were much more front and centre to people. But I do think it adds a wrinkle in certainly the Liberals efforts to not make this election about accountability or ethics, but I didn’t see evidence that it was fundamental to people’s choices. It kind of felt like it was baked in already to how they were viewing the leaders and the parties at this stage.
Mercedes Stephenson: Shachi, when we saw it before, they had a significant drop in the numbers. The longer the SNC-Lavalin affair went on, the worse it got for the Liberals. Now this has come back out. Is the damage they’re going to sustain already done? Because there’s not a lot of new revelations here, or does this hit them right before the election in terms of their numbers? I know we’re still waiting for the most recent polls.
Shachi Kurl: Right, so a bunch of things. So first of all, it does arrest and stall momentum. It’s like having to kill a five-minute major penalty in the third period of a game. So you may be playing well, but now you’re back on your heels, you’re playing defence and you’re not focused on your own game. So that, no matter what the party, what the issue, is always going to be problematic when you’re knocked off your own message.
In terms of the polling, you know, I think it’s important to look at this in a couple of different ways. First of all, campaigns are dynamic, so what becomes the ballot issue is often not what the parties want it to be. It’s often not what the polling says it will be 70 or seven weeks out, 70 days out. It can often galvanize in the last 10 days of a campaign and you just don’t know. It’s the X factor.
The other key is looking at soft voters and undecided. So you asked about is the damage already done? For Liberal voters from 2015 who were upset about this and migrated to the Conservative Party, there’s not much more room for the Conservatives to go except for to galvanize that base to vote, to get them angry and motivated to vote. The key now is what happens to left of centre voters who are feeling disillusioned with the Liberals. Are they going to come back? Are they going to stay home? Are they going to vote NDP or Green? And so that really is the X factor with this scandal. And yes, it had receded into their minds but not it’s back. It’s on the front burner again, and there is the drip, drip, drip potential of just being reminded of it. Remember you were mad at those people? Let us remind you of why.
Mercedes Stephenson: And David, you said that ethics isn’t necessarily something—or scandals vote on, and historically we’ve seen that but trust can be a big factor. And you talked to a lot of people anecdotally and you see the big numbers, so I’m curious on both of your opinions about this. But they’ll say well, I voted for Justin Trudeau because I thought he was different. And one of the challenges for them in this scandal was that the image they put out there didn’t match. And now with the ethics commissioner coming out and basically verifying a lot of the things that Jody Wilson-Raybould said, does that affect some of those voters who chose Justin Trudeau. They weren’t necessarily traditional Liberal voters who might go Green, who might go NDP, to question the choice of whether they’re going to vote Liberal again?
David Coletto: Yeah, I think it is. That’s the biggest—if you’re the Liberals, that’s your biggest challenge, right? Is that progressive voters, you know, they need to really be inspired. They need to love or like the choices they have. They’re not often just driven by fear alone, right? And so, you know, you can make all the arguments you want about how—to a progressive voter about how Andrew Scheer is going to do this, that or the other thing that you don’t like. That may not be sufficient to bring them home, and I think this issue this week added more friction to the slide to get people back into the Liberal camp, or to convince them to, you know, plug their nose or vote strategically to vote Liberal to stop Andrew Scheer. That being said, you know, what I felt about the SNC controversy earlier this year, what it did to Justin Trudeau’s brand was that I think it just brought him down to the same level as everybody else, that for so long, he had the sustained goodwill among Canadians. You know, more Canadians viewed him positively than negatively in our polling through most of his term. There was a blip when he went to India but it came back. It hasn’t come back. It was starting to and I think when we talk about momentum, when we talk about how this could stall some of those indicators that seem to be really favourable to the Liberals, I think that, if there is an impact, that’s what it will be. It doesn’t mean it fundamentally, you know, throws this election away for the Liberals so they can’t win it now. But they had a few good weeks coming into this week and I think that momentum, I think, is stalled now a little bit. We’ll see what the polls say, but that, if anything, is going to—my view what the impact will be.
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that why the Opposition are trying to pull this out too? Because now they’re saying they want to have this emergency meeting. They want to have the ethics commission come and testify. He’s unlikely to say anything that’s not in the report. But is the lesson that they took from this scandal: the longer you keep it in the news cycle, the more you might affect those votes?
Shachi Kurl: Keep it on the front burner. Justin Trudeau himself did incredible damage to his own brand as David said. And so the question in campaigns is very much a question of leadership. We look at platforms, we look at policy, we test these ideas with voters, but at the end of the day, it really comes down to looking at the leaders on the dais in a debate, or on the campaign trail and going that person, not that person, maybe that person. Four years ago, Justin Trudeau was the young, energetic, dynamic, positive, different-thinking candidate. This time, he is the oldest of the three major contenders, and he is the one carrying the most political baggage. But at the same time, you know, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. He’s now becoming a very polarizing or divisive leader. People either still really like him in spite of everything: I forgive you Justin. Or they can’t bring themselves to forgive. And it’s not just this. Particularly for Progressive voters, there’s the broken promise on electoral reform. We all kind of sloughed that off. But now when you get into a tight race that’s really going to be decided on the margins and a handful of voters here or there who could sway to one party or another, these little things could have accumulative effect, or we still may find ourselves on the campaign trail going with voters saying, you know what? At the end of the day that’s still the most effective campaigner out there.
Mercedes Stephenson: David, what effect does this have on some of the key area, because it’s a campaign that we expect to be fought largely in lower mainland Vancouver, in the GTA and in parts of Quebec?
David Coletto: I don’t know if there’s a regionalized impact. I certainly—it’ll be interesting to see how Quebecers respond to this versus, you know, English Canada. I do think that we saw some difference in how they respond to SNC, but when you look at those battle grounds, I’m not certain, you know, this issue plays differently in suburban Toronto than it does in downtown Toronto. I think what matters is, who you are, what your perspective is. If you are already a solid Liberal, you know, you’re going to interpret and consume and filter this story very differently than if you’re already somebody who doesn’t like Justin Trudeau, right? So the question—
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that why you think he’s not apologizing?
David Coletto: Well, I think so. And I think he’s trying to reframe this as something about jobs and, you know, and not to say that, you know, what happened wasn’t important. But most Canadians don’t follow this stuff closely. They don’t pay deep attention to the inner workings of how, you know, decisions are made or—
Shachi Kurl: The definitions of the Shawcross doctrine.
David Coletto: Exactly, right? So if it’s Shawcross versus jobs, I think the Liberals are hoping that more people will say well this just makes more sense. I’d rather the prime minister really be focused on this and not Andrew Scheer, you know, spent all his time and effort focused on an ethics question which given what’s going on around the world, given what’s going on in the United States, seems—could seem nowhere near as serious as some of the stuff that Donald Trump and his administration are doing. So, I think that might be a big factor for people is just a sense of contrast with other parts of the world as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Very interesting interpretations. All the time we have today. We have to wrap it up. But thank you both so much for your insight and we’ll see where those polls go early this week.
Shachi Kurl: Alright Mercedes, thank you.
David Coletto: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, sorry. Why do politicians have such a hard time apologizing when they’ve done something wrong?
Joining me now is Barry McLoughlin from Barry McLoughlin Media and Communications, a consultant who has advised many politicians on what to do. Why can’t they just say I’m sorry, Barry?
Barry McLoughlin: Well it is a really interesting challenge. I mean, I’ve had experience with a former premier somewhere in Canada and I was coaching him prior to testimony. And I said to him, you know, this is your chance to say I’m sorry. The lawyer immediately jumps up out of the room and says, “We won’t be saying I’m sorry.” And the legal filter on that is certainly one factor because they think that it’s an admission of something that could have tangible concern about it on a legal basis. So that may be one aspect. I think the second is he looked at what his headline wanted to be. He wanted it to be: I take full responsibility. And guess what? He got that headline. He got that lead. But right away, it said he took responsibility without admitting wrongdoing, disagreeing with the findings and refusing to say I’m sorry. So, I think that it’s kind of those—it’s a great empty phrase, and it’s absent of meaning but I think for a lot of people, it might be quite satisfying.
Mercedes Stephenson: Well we call it “controlling the clip” in media. When they make sure you only get that clip they want you to run. The Harper government was notorious for it. Do you think there’s a point where he potentially might have to apologize in the campaign?
Barry McLoughlin: I doubt it. I don’t think he’s going to. I think they’ll try to do that in the debates. I think they’re going to try to turn to him and ask him: Are you gonna say now you’re sorry? And I think refusing to apologize. This has been a bit of a pattern for the prime minister. I mean, going back to the first issue that arose which was his trip to the Aga Khan Island in the Bahamas. He dragged that one out. In came that India trip. That was a dragged out sort of debacle that kept going on and on. Most of them could have been ended with a quick, clean, full determination of these are the facts. We took actions. Looking back on it, I made some mistakes in this. I am sorry and move forward. He never has done that personally, but he apologizes profusely for all previous governments and all directions against all kinds of people. So, he knows how to do that. He’s very, you know, the tears come and he chokes up and he obviously—and that was the most—I don’t think that was acting. I think he genuinely felt that way. But for some reason on his own personal conduct, he refuses to do so. I think he sees it as damaging his own brand.
Mercedes Stephenson: Does that create a problem in terms of credibility and trust? Because if he’s willing to apologize for historic wrongs but not his own wrongs, and he’s willing to say it should not have happened. It should never happen again, and I take full responsibility but I’m not sorry. Do people see that as a disconnect?
Barry McLoughlin: Well, I think it potentially is a disconnect. I think certainly for swing voters, for the kind of people he pulled into the ballot box last time, they may not be quite willing this time to follow him. I think that is a concern. You’ve seen some damage in the polls, but I don’t know. I’m not a pollster. We’ll see what happens. But to me, this is a situation where this prime minister feels that by personally apologizing, he’s exposing himself to further questioning. And I think he’ll see the ethics committee this week. I don’t think they’re going to be moving ahead with bringing in witnesses to fully explore that. You know, we were all high and mighty here in Canada when the Mueller report came out and all the jockeying by the Trump administration not to cooperate in terms of congressional testimony around the Mueller report. But, in a way, we’re kind of moving into that here. You know, is it worth exploring it? Is it worth understanding it? Is it worth having testimony to Canadians? I think in the end, you know, maybe they’ve calibrated; people are tired of the entire issue.
Mercedes Stephenson: Conventional wisdom says if you apologize, people will forgive you. Is that true in politics?
Barry McLoughlin: It is par—I think it is true. I think, you know, they look at it in their own lives. I mean, if your kid comes out and says dad, I made a mistake and I’m sorry, that’s one thing. But if they say dad, I took full responsibility but I’m not apologizing. I think you’re wrong anyway. We don’t think that’s a really genuine thing to say. And I think people look at it through their own personal filter. I don’t think it meets the test of credibility. But, you know, in the end, to his voter universe, they might be just satisfied with it, thank you very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a few moments left, but how would you grade their damage control on this so far?
Barry McLoughlin: Oh this is—
Mercedes Stephenson: Or the evolving story that’s gone on.
Barry McLoughlin: No, this has been a D- to F. This could have been dealt with very quickly and crisply, way back in February. They chose not to do it. And so now, you know, it’s the gift that keeps on giving for the Opposition.
Mercedes Stephenson: Barry McLoughlin, thank you so much for your time.
Barry McLoughlin: My pleasure, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, for The West Block. Have a great week.