Liberal talking points on Wilson-Raybould do not make sense

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2017 First Nations Leaders’ Gathering. Photo: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

If Jody Wilson-Raybould felt pressured by anyone in the Prime Minister's Office, months ago, to give SNC-Lavalin a break, why didn't she complain at the time? That is the Trudeau government's main talking point about the resignation of the former Veterans' Affairs and Justice Minister.

On CBC-Radio, lobbyist and Liberal operative Susan Smith went even further. She asked why Wilson-Raybould did not simply hand in her resignation last fall, when she was supposedly being pressured.

It is an aggressive, but not very effective, argument. And all Liberals do not subscribe to it.

Senior cabinet minister Jane Philpott and Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes both made a point of publicly expressing admiration for Wilson-Raybould, and unwavering support for her work as justice minister. Philpott tweeted that she had learned a lot from Wilson-Raybould about Indigenous issues.

In any case, the Liberals' rhetorical question is misplaced.

Wilson-Raybould did not resign last fall because she did not give in to the intense pressure from unelected, unaccountable, politically appointed apparatchiks in the Prime Minister's Office. She refused to countermand the decision of the public prosecutor's office to proceed with a criminal bribery case against SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould only chose to resign after Trudeau shuffled her out of the justice job and paved the way for a new minister to do exactly what his backroom folks wanted.

The new justice minister, David Lametti, has said, quite openly, that, unlike Wilson-Raybould, he is actively considering allowing the engineering and construction giant SNC-Lavalin to evade the criminal charges it faces via a recently legislated option called a remediation agreement. The company would thus avoid the harsh consequences of a criminal conviction. One of those consequences would be a 10-year ban from all federal government contracts.

Other countries have remediation

The Liberals slipped the remediation agreement or deferred prosecution measure into a budget implementation bill in 2018. There is nothing necessarily unusual about such agreements. Other countries, such as the U.K. and the United States, have used them for a while now. Their purpose is to allow offending companies, which are repentant and willing to mend their ways, to continue operating, without having to wear the label "criminal." That way, governments can head off potential economic harm to innocent shareholders, workers and pensioners.

At the time the Canadian Parliament passed the remediation-agreement legislation the general view in Ottawa was that the Trudeau government's main goal was to provide an escape from criminal prosecution for SNC-Lavalin.

The director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, who is a non-political federal civil servant, did not, however, think remediation or deferred prosecution was appropriate in SNC-Lavalin's case. And the minister to whom Roussel reported, Jody Wilson-Raybould, backed her.

If Wilson-Raybould had wanted to go against the director's advice and permit a remediation process for SNC-Lavalin, she would have had to do so publicly, and state her reasons. It is quite possible Wilson-Raybould did not believe there were any sound and valid reasons to reverse this senior public servant's decision.

When Justin Trudeau shuffled Wilson-Raybould out of the justice ministry, she wrote a long blog post touting her accomplishments as justice minister and attorney general. Some of the points she raised explain why she would have been extremely reluctant to interfere in a criminal prosecution.

The former minister referred to the "unique responsibilities" of Canada's attorney general "to uphold the rule of law." And she pointedly commented that the role "demands a measure of principled independence."

She then added this powerful statement:

"It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference … it has always been my view that the attorney general of Canada must be non-partisan … transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions … and always willing to speak truth to power."

Complicated politics and some Conservative hypocrisy

This whole affair has now become highly political.

The Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, smell blood. They are characterizing the scandal as proof that the Justin Trudeau Liberals are as ethically challenged as Liberal governments of the bad old days.

Conservatives do not mention that when they were in power they were planning corporate remediation legislation similar to that passed by the Liberals.

Nor do they speak about the fact that Scheer has met with SNC-Lavalin to discuss ways of circumventing a criminal proceeding, with all of its potentially dangerous economic consequences, especially for Quebec.

Conservatives also rail against the fact that the government slipped the remediation or deferred prosecution measure into the back pages of a voluminous budget implementation bill. They complain that it was the finance, not the justice committee that got to review the measure, and did so in only cursory fashion.

That criticism is a bit rich, since the Harper Conservatives introduced huge volumes of significant legislation via budget omnibus bills. They changed the environmental assessment process and gutted the navigable waters protection act using that dubious and undemocratic method, to name but two of the many examples.

It was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who triggered the federal ethics commissioner's investigation of the scandal.

But the NDP has been less obsessed with this issue than the Conservatives. While the SNC-Lavalin storm has been raging, New Democrats have continued to focus on other issues they consider important to Canadians.

For instance, on Wednesday, February 13, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Trudeau government to implement immediate measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs for Canadians, and make pharmaceutical companies more accountable to patients.

NDP's Cullen tries to play a constructive role

Wednesday was also the day when the House of Commons justice committee met in an emergency sitting to consider the Wilson-Raybould affair. Opposition MPs wanted the committee to invite key players in this affair, including Wilson-Raybould and two of the prime minister's senior advisers, to appear as witnesses in a wide-ranging inquiry.

The Liberals did an end run around that proposal with their own motion that names as witnesses only the current justice minister and two senior civil servants: the clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy minister of justice. The committee is to meet behind closed doors on February 19 to decide what additional witnesses to call, if any, and to plan next steps.

Nathan Cullen, for the NDP, and the Conservative members at the committee were outraged the Liberal members did not want to, at the very least, commit to inviting the person at the centre of the storm, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Cullen proposed a modest amendment to the Liberal motion, naming three additional witnesses, one of whom was Wilson-Raybould. He also proposed the follow-up meeting on February 19 be held in public.

Liberal MPs made the argument that it is usual practice for a committee to determine its witness list in private, and claimed that Wilson-Raybould is bound by solicitor-client privilege.

Cullen pointed out they could invite the former minister to appear and allow her to decide for herself how much she is able to say publicly about what happened between her and the prime minister's palace guard. Cullen noted that Wilson-Raybould is being well advised. She has hired a former Supreme Court justice to counsel her as to what she can and cannot say publicly.

This affair might not yet be a full-blown scandal, as Cullen made a point of saying. But it is far from over.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

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