If anyone still doubted that the relationship between Justin Trudeau and his former justice minister had soured in the aftermath of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s demotion to a lower-profile cabinet post last month, those doubts have been put to rest.
With the government hit by the biggest political storm to have come its way since its swearing-in, the prime minister and the former justice minister have been unable to land on the same page.
Instead, Canadians have been treated to the rare spectacle of a sitting minister opting to leave the prime minister wiggling on a hook rather than fish or cut bait.
Faced with Globe and Mail allegations that his office pressured Wilson-Raybould into offering the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement instead of bringing the company to trial on pending corruption charges, Trudeau has maintained that he never “directed” the former minister to do anything.
She, on the other hand, has declined to confirm or deny the prime minister’s take on the nature of their exchanges. Nor has she responded to allegations by confidential sources of undue pressures on the part of the PMO.
Wilson-Raybould said Friday she was bound to silence by solicitor-client privilege.
That there have been exchanges between the PMO and the then-justice minister on SNC-Lavalin is not really in doubt.
Any prime minister, regardless of political stripe, would be concerned about the viability of a strategic economic asset of the magnitude of the Montreal-based company.
SNC-Lavalin is one of the world’s leading engineering firms, with a Canadian workforce numbering thousands, and its demise would result in a significant brain drain and a grievous loss of Canadian expertise.
It is no secret that SNC-Lavalin was lobbying the government to avoid a criminal conviction on charges related to its activities in Libya. Such a conviction would result in a 10-year prohibition on bidding for federal contracts and the possible cancellation in the firm’s participation in major ongoing infrastructure projects.
Like all governments, Canada has struggled to find a balance between punishing corporate malfeasance and taking the risk of killing geese that otherwise lay golden eggs for the country’s economy.
The Trudeau government’s answer took the shape of deferred prosecution agreement frameworks. They are designed to offer an alternative judicial avenue to hold corporations responsible for illegal acts committed in their names.
The government may well have been prompted to introduce the 2017 change by SNC-Lavalin’s case.
The PMO may also have hoped that, given an alternative to a criminal trial, federal prosecutors would choose the route of least collateral damage to the future of the firm.
When that did not happen, Wilson-Raybould did have the ministerial discretion to override her prosecutors and instruct them to negotiate a settlement with the firm.
Had she done so, she would have been legally bound to publicize her decision. Both she and Trudeau would have had to explain the rationale behind it.
On that basis, there were valid reasons for conversations between the PMO and the then-justice minister, but also grounds for a difference of opinion between the two.
If the latter is what this boils down to, Wilson-Raybould owes it to Canadians to help clear the air, something she could have done by stating outright that the PMO and Trudeau did not cross any red line.
But if, on the contrary, the dialogue degenerated into PMO demands that she act in a way that could have perverted the course of justice, she does owe Canadians more than her current passive-aggressive answer.
In his current role as executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant wrote that, had he been subjected to attempts at political interference from the office of premier Dalton McGuinty, he would have called 911.
In parallel circumstances, Thomas Mulcair – who ran afoul of premier Jean Charest on a matter pertaining to his custodial duty as environment minister – opted to shine a bright light on the conflict by leaving the Quebec cabinet rather than quietly accept the punishment of a demotion.
If Wilson-Raybould does believe the PMO is running or has tried to run interference with the proper functioning of the justice system, one could not but ask why she has not resigned – on principle – from Trudeau’s cabinet rather than accept a lesser role.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.