Trudeau is playing with political fire

In the wake of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, a war of words between the prime minister and his former attorney general seems inevitable.

If the developments of the past few days are any indication, it could get ugly.

Wilson-Raybould would hardly have resigned if her interpretation of the interaction she had with the Prime Minister’s Office over the handling of the criminal prosecution on corruption charges of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin matched Trudeau’s.

She would not be seeking legal advice as to how much, if anything, she can disclose from former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell if she were not exploring the option of giving her version of events.

As an aside, Cromwell’s credentials can only make the advice Wilson-Raybould acts on harder to challenge either by the government — should the former justice lay out a legal rationale for her to speak up — or by the opposition parties if he advises her to remain silent.

In hindsight, Wilson-Raybould is probably congratulating herself for seeking top-notch legal advice.

Judging from the prime minister’s reaction to her resignation, Trudeau and his team are in a take-no-prisoners mood.

To listen to the prime minister on Tuesday, one would have been hard-pressed to find any lingering sign of the pride that attended Wilson-Raybould’s appointment as Canada’s first Indigenous attorney general three years ago. Hers was not a run-of–the-mill cabinet casting call.

Back in 2015, her elevation was seen as a powerful signal of the depth of Trudeau’s commitment to reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It was one of the main cabinet highlights, as well as a key piece in the prime minister’s gender-parity puzzle.

But on Tuesday, the picture he painted of his former minister was anything but flattering. Trudeau questioned her integrity. He said her actions were at odds with their private conversations. He might as well have called Wilson-Raybould a loose cannon.

As he moves from the high road to the muddy trenches to fight allegations of political interference in the justice system, Trudeau might want to pause to consider that he has more to lose than just a public argument with Wilson-Raybould over the terms of engagement between his office and the minister in the SNC-Lavalin matter.

In that particular battle, the best outcome the prime minister can probably hope for may be a draw.

In the end, Canadians may be left to choose between two contrary interpretations of the exchanges between the former minister and the PMO.

The issue has already brought back to the surface some familiar fault lines, with Trudeau so far winning the argument in Quebec, but very much on the hot seat in editorial quarters elsewhere in Canada.

SNC-Lavalin has its head office in Montreal and deep roots in Quebec. Premier Francois Legault has said publicly he believes the federal justice department should seek a remediation agreement rather than pursue a criminal trial that could, if it resulted in a guilty verdict, prevent the firm from bidding on federal contracts for a decade.

That is emerging as a consensus position within Quebec’s chattering and political classes — a fact that has certainly not escaped the notice of the opposition parties.

By the same token though, it is an understatement to say that the Quebec view is not widely shared outside the province, a fact that sits uncomfortably with many Liberals as they nervously look down the road to the fall election.

Trudeau may hope to tilt the balance of public opinion in his favour by undermining Wilson-Raybould’s credibility. But he should worry about a boomerang effect on his already damaged moral authority.

The optics of this prime minister attacking the integrity of a prominent Indigenous champion is already dismally poor. The fact that this crisis pits Trudeau against one of the highest-profile women in his caucus makes for a lethal political combination.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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