At the base of the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair lie two unanswered questions: Why did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffle her out of the justice portfolio? Why did she quit cabinet last week?
Perhaps these will be addressed seriously by the Commons justice committee looking into the matter. However, the record of past Commons committee hearings suggests otherwise.
When the political stakes are high, such hearings tend to deteriorate into incomprehensible, partisan wrangling.
We do have partial answers to at least some of the questions raised by the controversy.
Citing unnamed sources, the Globe and Mail reported that the prime minister’s office pressed then attorney general Wilson-Raybould last year to offer a form of plea bargain to construction giant SNC-Lavalin.
The Quebec firm has been charged with bribery and corruption in relation to contracts it won in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya more than a decade ago.
The newspaper article didn’t specifically say that Wilson-Raybould had been demoted to veterans affairs minister for refusing to bend to this pressure. But it did leave that impression.
Since then, the prime minister and his top official have confirmed they did talk to Wilson-Raybould about SNC-Lavalin when she was attorney general.
A spokesperson said that Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary, talked briefly to her on Dec. 5, well after federal prosecutors — with the acquiescence of Wilson-Raybould — had refused SNL-Lavalin’s request to negotiate a plea bargain.
Did either of these conversations dealing with the politically sensitive fate of a major Quebec employer constitute improper pressure? The government says no and Wilson-Raybould, citing the doctrine of solicitor-client privilege, won’t say.
What we do know is regardless of these and any other interventions from the prime minister or his aides, Wilson-Raybould chose not to override her officials and offer SNC-Lavalin a break.
If she was subjected to political pressure, it wasn’t very effective.
As attorney general, Wilson-Raybould was one of the brighter lights in the Trudeau cabinet. Why then was she demoted in the January cabinet shuffle? Was she being punished for bucking the prime minister?
Did Trudeau replace her with Montreal MP David Lametti because he wanted someone more in tune with the politics of Quebec to handle the SNC-Lavalin file? If so, was that improper? Or was it just politics as usual in the messy business of cabinet making?
Good luck in getting real answers to those questions.
By convention, prime ministers don’t have to explain their cabinet choices to anyone. It’s a prerogative they guard jealously.
Finally, why did Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet when she did? If she objected to what she viewed as improper political pressure last fall, why didn’t she quit then? If she objected to being demoted in the latest cabinet shuffle, why didn’t she take her leave at that point?
Indeed, why did she quit cabinet at all? Her letter of resignation doesn’t say.
There has been some speculation that Wilson-Raybould is unhappy with the government’s progress on the Indigenous file. Is that why she quit? If that’s the case, why didn’t she say so?
And why is it more intolerable to be a minister in the Trudeau government now than it was, say, two weeks ago?
Perhaps these questions can be answered if and when she chooses to speak.
Until then, we are left with a scandal that — so far — is not very scandalous. A minister is allegedly pressured to use the statutory powers that allow her to legally override her officials. She doesn’t do so and the case in question continues on its way to trial.
If, as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insists, this is an example of the Liberals kowtowing to their corporate friends, they are clearly not very good at it.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.