Justin Trudeau’s explanation of the SNC-Lavalin affair has explained little.
The prime minister was supposed to put the issue to bed at an early-morning press conference Thursday. He did not succeed.
He conceded that he asked former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould last September to re-examine her decision not to grant SNC-Lavalin a plea bargain that would allow it to avoid a criminal conviction for bribery and corruption.
But he said he had no idea until much later that Wilson-Raybould felt that she was being unduly pressured by him and his staff to change her mind.
He blamed the whole thing on poor communications and what he called an erosion of trust between his office and Wilson-Raybould.
He said, in effect, that this was the fault of his former principal secretary, Gerry Butts.
He said he had no idea things were so bad.
He acknowledged that, after his initial September meeting with Wilson-Raybould, he ordered his staff to keep talking to her about the SNC-Lavalin decision. He said his only regret was that he hadn’t talked to her himself.
Yet, he said, he failed to understand that she viewed this as pressure.
He said he deemed the issue important because criminal prosecution could put SNC-Lavalin and its entire 9,000-strong workforce across the country at risk. But he didn’t explain where this dire prediction came from, saying only that the government had spoken to many individuals and the company itself.
He did not explain why, if poor communications were the issue, Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott felt compelled to resign from cabinet.
He didn’t address the fact that both former ministers now say they have no confidence in his government. He seemed to say that, in spite of their lack of trust in his leadership, neither is being expelled from the Liberal caucus.
On Wednesday, Butts gave a plausible explanation for Wilson-Raybould’s January demotion from justice to veterans affairs. He told the Commons justice committee that in a shuffle necessitated by the retirement of Treasury Board president Scott Brison, the prime minister had asked Wilson-Raybould to take over the Indigenous services portfolio.
When she took the unusual step of refusing his request, she was moved instead into veterans affairs. Butts said this punishment was appropriate because it made the point that the prime minister alone decides who does what in cabinet.
When Trudeau was asked about Wilson-Raybould’s demotion Thursday, he did not refer to any of this. Instead, he answered with the usual mumbo-jumbo about the trade-offs involved in cabinetmaking.
Indeed, Trudeau’s performance overall paled beside that of his friend and former top aide. Butts spoke in relatively plain English. Trudeau spoke in bromides and that odd Ottawa language known as talking points.
Asked if his staff raised political concerns with Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin’s treatment, the prime minister answered: “I’m sure there were a broad range of discussions.”
On his overall handling of the affair, he said: “There’s always room for improvement,” and “There are lessons to be learned.”
He said experts would be consulted to make sure that similar problems don’t occur in the future.
At one point, Trudeau left his prepared text to refer to his father and former prime minister, Pierre, noting that, like his dad, he believes in legal and social justice.
But, he went on, his leadership style differs markedly from that of his father.
In that, he is certainly correct. In fact, Justin Trudeau could have used a bit of Pierre on Thursday.
The elder Trudeau was not always nice, particularly to the press. He tended to treat reporters (not always unjustly) as shallow idiots. If he wanted to muddy the waters, he could bafflegab at will.
But when necessary, he could be clear and blunt. And he never, never would have allowed any of his ministers to outfox him.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.