Opinion: Boeing, SNC prove Liberals flying blind

No one will accuse Transport Minister Marc Garneau of having rushed to judgment on whether to ground Boeing 737 Max 8 planes from Canadian air space until more is known about the causes of last Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash.

By the time Garneau appeared on Wednesday to announce he was reversing his earlier stance that the aircraft was safe to fly, just about every international ally of Canada – with the exception of the United States – had already grounded the plane.

Garneau said he changed his mind on the basis of new information drawn from comparing the satellite-tracked paths of the two Max 8s that crashed.

Perhaps, but sometimes fresh data can double as a fig leaf.

For it is also a fact that by the time Canada joined most of the rest of the planet in grounding the aircraft, the federal position had become untenable.

The plan to keep the planes airborne really started to falter as of the moment the European Union banned them from its airspace.

That happened about 24 hours before Garneau held his news conference.

Based on information that Canada almost certainly had in hand at the time, countries with comparable air safety standards came to a very different conclusion.

As of that point, hopes that Transport Canada’s assurances would be enough to shore up the faith of rattled Canadian air travellers vanished.

Any plan to use Garneau’s scheduled press briefing to reinforce the message that there was nothing to fear from flying on 737 Max 8 aircraft was not going to cut it.

With every passing hour, the question became not if, but when Canada would pivot to a different position. Indeed, the U.S. followed suit a few hours later.

By reversing his stance, Garneau only narrowly avoided flying his government into a zone of political turbulence it is less than well equipped to navigate in the current crisis-mode state that has resulted from the SNC-Lavalin affair.

He also spared himself what would probably have been an acrimonious news conference. Given the grounding of the Boeing plane by just about every other international jurisdiction, he would have had a hard time defending Canada’s outlier status. Reversing his position had become the path of least resistance and the only palatable option.

That is not to say that Garneau’s initial call was not the result of due diligence or even that in different circumstances at home and abroad, he might not have been inclined to stick to his guns.

As an engineer and a former astronaut, the transport minister knows more about flying than the vast majority of Canadians, starting with those who sit alongside him in Justin Trudeau’s government.

This is not a politician who needs his officials to dumb down technical briefings so as to make them intelligible or who has to take lessons on air safety from his ministerial colleagues.

But the rationality that Garneau exhibits in his tasks as a minister is combined with relatively short political antennas.

Spatial intelligence is commonly defined as an ability to visualize with the mind’s eye.

The transport minister undoubtedly brings an abundance of that intelligence to the task of assessing the expertise he is presented with, but not so much to anticipating the political viability of his judgment calls.

In this, he is not alone in the current government.

A regular feature of the political management or, in this case, mismanagement style of the current Liberal team has been an apparent incapacity to assess the probable consequences of a selected course of action.

That inability has been front and centre in the ongoing SNC-Lavalin crisis, starting with the cabinet shuffle that set the affair off and including the Liberal stonewalling that prevented the justice committee on Wednesday from voting on whether to reinvite former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould for a second round of testimony.

That stonewalling may well only delay the inevitable at a cost to the government’s already fragile narrative that it has nothing to hide.

The same lack of political foresight has been in evidence in the shovelling forward to an early grave of Trudeau’s signature promise of electoral reform; the small-business revolt over a poorly communicated tax reform that was allowed to simmer until it boiled over and the prime minister’s ill-fated staged trip to India, to name just those.

In each and every case, what has been most striking has not been the shortfalls of Trudeau’s team’s end game, but the apparent absence of one.

This is not – as it is turning out – a great way to run a responsive government. Looking at the upcoming campaign, a systemic inability to think ahead of the curve could well be a recipe for electoral disaster.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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