Ever since allegations of high-level political interference in the federal prosecution of engineering firm SNC-Lavalin surfaced, it has been assumed that from the government’s perspective, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s silence was a better alternative than having her speak out about her exchanges with the prime minister and his staff.
Given her refusal to sanction — if only by staying in cabinet — Trudeau’s version that nothing improper had taken place, it has been widely expected that if and when she spoke, her testimony would only sink the government deeper into a hole.
But is that assumption still valid in the wake of the resignation on Monday of principal secretary Gerald Butts?
His departure could pave the way for Wilson-Raybould to become part of the solution to the government’s problem.
It is at least plausible that Wilson-Raybould could exonerate Trudeau even as she excoriates Butts.
Based on his resignation statement, Trudeau’s former right-hand adviser has all but set himself up for a hit. Even as he maintained he had crossed no red line in his dealings with the former attorney general, Butts went out of his way to out himself as the specific target of the political interference allegations.
For his part, the prime minister has admitted he discussed the SNC-Lavalin file with Wilson-Raybould, but he insists they concur on the fact that he told her the decision as to the way forward was hers alone to make.
That SNC-Lavalin found support at the highest levels of the government for its contention that it should be spared the risk of a criminal conviction that would see it barred from bidding on federal contracts for a decade is not in question.
But the fact that the firm continued to be denied the remediation agreement it was lobbying for despite that support also suggests the former attorney general followed her own counsel.
Butts’ resignation opens the door for Wilson-Raybould to bring the Liberals some relief from this ongoing crisis by severing his interventions from Trudeau’s. The Liberals who have now become noticeably more eager to hear her out may well be hoping for such an outcome.
It would not bring the government the definitive closure it craves, and it would leave the conflict between Butts and Wilson-Raybould’s versions unresolved. But it would for the first time cut or reduce the flow of oxygen that has kept the issue so alive.
The opposition parties can hardly call for the head of someone who has already handed it to them.
With Wilson-Raybould standing by Trudeau, if not by his former principal secretary, opposition charges that the latter was acting with the prime minister’s blessing would still be fair game, but would lose some impact.
That being said, there is a difference between salvation and redemption. For the Liberals, there will be no turning back the clock to their pre-SNC-Lavalin status.
Of the three main protagonists in this crisis, two have resigned their positions and the third is walking wounded. Polls are starting to provide a measure of the severity of the external damage to the prime minister and, by extension, the Liberals.
The next few months will tell whether that damage can be fixed between now and the election campaign. But the repair job can’t start until the Liberals find an exit strategy from the worst of this crisis. The internal damage to the government could complicate that job.
Losing a multi-tasking player as central to its operations as Butts on the eve of an election campaign is bound to take a toll on its inner workings.
By all indications, the fall election will at least in part be fought on the climate-change battlefield. Within Trudeau’s government, Butts was the environmental movement’s most influential advocate. In his resignation statement, he took time to restate his commitment to the fight against climate change.
But his fervour was not universally shared. With painful memories of Stephane Dion’s 2008 carbon tax campaign still fresh in their minds, many Liberals remain nervous at the prospect of navigating the same electoral minefield next fall. It will be worth watching whether — with Butts gone — the Liberal resolve weakens.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.