February is truly the longest month in Canada.
When we last met about the convoluted SNC-Lavalin affair, I wondered what kind of hand Jody Wilson-Raybould was hiding up her sleeve. After last night’s marathon testimony to the House of Commons Justice committee, it would appear that she is packing a royal flush.
Her four hours of testimony opened with a 30-minute statement detailed 10 phone calls and 10 meetings she had with 11 senior federal government officials, including the prime minister himself, where she alleges she faced inappropriate efforts to politically interfere in the independence of the office of the Auditor General. On her account, she made up her mind not to instruct the Director of Public Prosecutions to offer a Deferred Prosecution Agreement—a kind of white-collar crime plea deal—to SNC-Lavalin in September 2018, and then spent the next several months telling colleagues, staffers, and superiors to back off on trying to get her to change her mind.
According to her testimony, this began with warnings from Clerk of the Privy Council—Ottawa’s chief bureaucrat—about the negative political fallout for Quebec Liberals, and the economic problems that would arise should SNC-Lavalin face prosecution for corruption charges related to its activities in Libya between 2001 and 2011. This later escalated into a series of meetings with PMO officials, including one where Trudeau’s ex-right hand Gerry Butts casually dismisses the inconvenient Harper-era law (the Director of Public Prosecutions Act) he feels is hamstringing Wilson-Raybould. Then another, where PMO Chief of Staff Katie Telford reassures the Attorney General’s chief of staff that if Wilson-Raybould was uncomfortable with intervening in the case, it would be no problem to organize a slew of sympathetic op-eds in the national press to soothe public opinion.
Having refused to budge on her position, Wilson-Raybould said she received another call from Clerk Wernick just before Christmas, where he again reiterated the negative economic consequences of prosecuting SNC-Lavalin, and informed the AG that he felt “the prime minister is gonna find a way to get it done one way or another. So, he is in that kind of mood and I wanted you to be aware of that.” She held firm on her decision not to intervene, and the Clerk reiterated his concern about a “collision” between the prime minister and the attorney general.
Wilson-Raybould says she did not hear from Trudeau after this until January 7 of this year, when he called to inform her that she was being shuffled out of Justice and into Veterans’ Affairs. She told the prime minister that she believed this was related to her holding out on a deal for SNC, but Trudeau denied this was the case.
Finally, the Friday before the Cabinet shuffle, the Deputy Minister of Justice got a call from the Clerk informing them that the first conversation the new minister will be expected to have with Trudeau involves the SNC-Lavalin file. This is where she ended her testimony. Whew.
It’s not exactly the worst-case scenario for the Liberals—Wilson-Raybould was emphatic that nothing unlawful occurred, merely the grossly inappropriate—but it’s not too far off, either. Trudeau has been on the defensive since the story first broke in the Globe and Mail, and most of Wilson-Raybould’s receipt-filled testimony thoroughly contradicts the government’s shifting narratives about what happened. Maybe the prime minister genuinely did forget all those other times, after their September 2018 meeting, where his Attorney General was pressured to “find a solution.” He’s a busy guy, after all.
But with his media appearance in Montreal not long after Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to the Justice committee concluded, there was little new torquing of the story. There was no inappropriate pressure, we flatly disagree with Wilson-Raybould’s account, and at any rate we have no shame in our proud and vigorous defence of jobs and the economy—which we are sure you will appreciate when you go to the polls in October. SNC-Lavalin will never hang, though every dog beyond Quebec barks in disfavour.
The chips are down on the table now, and the lines have become clearly drawn. This is at heart a political dispute between the prime minister (and his many acolytes among staff and civil servants) and his former attorney general about the limits of the rule of law. How far can the prime minister go in the service of the so-called ‘national interest’? Beyond his ‘first among equals’ status around the Cabinet table? Beyond the repeated and sustained objection of the only public officer truly responsible for the decision? Beyond the thin liminal space that separates the Canadian political executive from the Canadian justice system?
So much of this country’s institutional architecture is held together by the honour system. Now, though, we’re forced to wonder: whose honour, exactly?
Since I wrote last week about this, the revelations at hand are not necessarily surprising. This kind of backroom brokerage is how the Canadian state has always functioned, historically, and myopically catering to the whims of Canada’s rich and powerful is something of a hallmark for this Liberal government in particular. This is a long, seldom-broken chain stretching back to the dawn of Confederation. What is genuinely surprising here is that a Cabinet minister found their spine. Wilson-Raybould considered the SNC-Lavalin case, decided against telling the Director of Public Prosecutions to offer the company a deal, and remained unmoved by all the (more-or-less compelling) reasons why her decision was problematic for the governing party and the country’s economy. And this is where the line is drawn: between what is politically expedient and what, in the attorney general’s judgment, is right.
This is likely the reason Trudeau waived solicitor-client privilege and Cabinet confidentiality to let Wilson-Raybould tell her damning story. The same calculations that pushed a full court press for SNC-Lavalin now push him to pull up the drawbridge in Fortress Quebec and try to wait out the winds of this news cycle. Trudeau is moulting his skin as a starry-eyed idealist and emerging as the world-weary statesmen that knows ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ Forced to choose between 2013 Justin Trudeau and 2013 Stephen Harper, the prime minister has backed down from Mt. Doom and pocketed his ring.
It may or may not secure his government a second term, but it will come at the price of their souls. Wilson-Raybould ended her opening statement yesterday by noting that she did what she did, in part, because her experience as an Indigenous woman informs her that the Canadian state has too-often found means to bend the rule of law for the convenience of its stakeholders and various “national interests.” She is intimately familiar with the ways in which this country, left to the devices of its ruling interests, will offer up two tiers of law for those who can afford the price of the ticket. This is perhaps her most devastating criticism of all: that the government is unable to accomplish the work of reconciliation if it cannot learn to uphold inconvenient principles in real time. Decolonization, as it were, is not a dinner party.
By rights, the prime minister should, if not outright resign, consider taking a long walk in the snow, or dissolve the legislature and call an early election. At the very least this all demands a fuller, meatier inquiry. But this is tremendously politically inconvenient for those of us who don’t want to see the country ransacked by right-wing wreckers just because the Liberals couldn’t stop themselves from being the Liberals in a political system dominated by the naked interests of capital.
Well, so be it. Everybody’s mask is off now; the players all finally revealed. Welcome to the 2019 election. It’s going to be so much nastier than we thought.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
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