By Chantal Hebert
Where to start?
The ethics commissioner’s report on the SNC-Lavalin affair contains the most damning findings ever rendered by an officer of Parliament against a sitting prime minister.
Yes, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were splattered by the sponsorship scandal. And Stephen Harper spent his last year in office embroiled in a Senate scandal that involved the second most powerful player in his office.
But neither Chretien, nor Martin, nor Harper were singled out in the way that Justin Trudeau is in the report released on Wednesday by ethics watchdog Mario Dion.
(As an aside, despite their leaders having been absolved of direct responsibility, the Liberals and Conservatives paid a hefty price in the ballot box for the events that unfolded on their parties’ respective watches in power.)
Anyone who believed the prime minister could not come out looking worse for his handling of the SNC-Lavalin file than in the testimony of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould will discover that the picture Dion paints is even more devastating.
That’s because it documents PMO efforts on behalf of and/or orchestrated in tandem with SNC-Lavalin to secure a remediation agreement to spare the Quebec engineering giant a possible criminal conviction, which goes beyond what was already revealed by Wilson-Raybould.
To read the ethics commissioner’s accounting of the events is to get the impression that the senior levels of the government essentially functioned as an arm of the engineering firm.
The line between the two was not so much blurred as virtually invisible.
The commissioner’s conclusion that the prime minister violated the federal ethics law is unadulterated.
He finds no extenuating circumstances to absolve Trudeau of having applied improper pressures on the then-attorney general to overrule her prosecutors in their dealings with SNC-Lavalin.
Dion rejects the rationale that the prime minister was only acquitting himself of his duty by trying to mitigate the economic fallout of a negative legal outcome for SNC-Lavalin.
He refutes the notion that because Wilson-Raybould ultimately stuck to her course, no line was crossed, noting that it is not the outcome of the arm-twisting that determines whether it took place.
Nor did Dion find merit in the suggestions that the former attorney general was difficult to work with, or that she had given Trudeau cause to doubt she had done due diligence on the file.
The ethics commissioner did not even give the prime minister much of the benefit of the doubt for possibly having been abetted by aides overzealous in their efforts to achieve what their boss wanted.
On the contrary, Dion writes: “As prime minister, Mr. Trudeau was the only public office holder who, by virtue of his position, could clearly exert influence over Ms. Wilson-Raybould.”
He adds: “the evidence abundantly shows that Mr. Trudeau knowingly sought to influence Ms. Wilson-Raybould both directly and through the actions of his agents.”
Liberal sources say they had no heads-up about the imminent release of the report. This week, PMO officials still estimated that the findings would be published in early September.
The fact that the report landed sooner rather than later may be the only saving grace for the government in the latest instalment of the saga that has plagued the Liberals since last winter.
The closer to the vote, the harder it would be to contain the damage of a bombshell of this magnitude.
If the election were not so close, Trudeau’s future as Liberal leader and prime minister might become a matter for internal debate within his party’s ranks.
In other circumstances, Dion’s report would amount to putting a big target on the leader’s back.
But the proximity of the federal campaign, to be launched officially next month, will almost certainly temper the temptation to look for a possible saviour. It is not as if there is really one in obvious sight.
On Wednesday, Trudeau certainly did not sound like a politician who was headed anywhere but on the hustings.
In the same breath as he accepted Dion’s report, the prime minister again maintained that he was not about to apologize for having tried to protect Canadian jobs. Expect him to stick to that line going forward.
Whether a plurality of voters will agree with Trudeau to disagree with the ethics commissioner on that point will be known, as the prime minister noted, within a matter of months.
By all indications, his rivals are also content to leave it to Canadians to pass judgment in October.
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had called for Trudeau’s resignation early on in this affair. But on Wednesday, his main message was an invitation to voters to punish the Liberals on election day.
That Dion inflicted a hit on Trudeau that the opposition parties could only dream of is not in question. It will take a while longer to know whether that makes the Liberal leader a dead man walking.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.