Wilson-Raybould’s resignation was overdue

Jody Wilson-Raybould has finally done it. She has resigned from a government with which she no longer agrees.

She should have done it months ago.

In her resignation letter on Tuesday, she didn’t specify the nature of her disagreement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Tellingly, she didn’t mention Trudeau at all.

But it’s a pretty fair guess that her decision not to offer a plea bargain to Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin had something to do with it.

The engineering firm faces corruption and bribery charges in relation to Libyan construction projects that date back to 2001.

If convicted at trial, it will be barred from bidding on federal contracts for a decade. But if offered a plea bargain, it can avoid the costly 10-year ban.

SNC-Lavalin, which employs thousands in Quebec, pressured the federal government (and the opposition parties) to extend the plea bargain option. Citing unnamed sources, the Globe and Mail has reported that officials in the prime minister’s office transferred that pressure last year to then-attorney general Wilson-Raybould.

By law, the attorney general can overrule justice officials and make the final decision in matters of federal criminal prosecution.

Is it improper for the prime minister to make his political concerns known to the attorney general, a fellow politician and cabinet minister? I would argue it’s not.

But if Wilson-Raybould believed such actions were improper, she could have — and should have — resigned then.

She didn’t, however. She stayed on and kept her mouth shut — until January, when Trudeau booted her from the attorney general’s post and shuffled her into the relatively minor veterans’ affairs portfolio.

At that time, Wilson-Raybould took the unusual step of issuing a statement in which, among other things, she wrote about the importance of ensuring that the justice system be free of even the perception of political interference.

A few weeks later, the Globe story appeared.

Since then, the relationship between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould has been headed for the rocks.

First, the prime minister said he didn’t direct Wilson-Raybould to do anything untoward. She said nothing.

Instead, she issued a statement arguing that, as a former attorney general, she was bound by the principle of solicitor-client privilege and thus could not speak at all on the issue.

Then he said she had reconfirmed a conversation the pair had last fall in which he told her that the final decision in any federal prosecution was hers alone.

She still said nothing.

Then he noted that her continued presence in cabinet proved that nothing was amiss.

She responded by quitting cabinet.

Throughout this dismal saga, Trudeau has been a victim of his own rhetorical confusion. He insists that Canada is subject to the rule of law — which is true. But he implies that this means Canada is subject only to the rule of judges, which is not true.

By law, politicians are given the explicit power to override judges in some instances (extradition is one example). The Constitution even allows elected politicians to override the Supreme Court in certain areas.

In a similar fashion, the Director of Public Prosecutions Act gives the attorney general, a politician, the power to override the decisions of federal prosecutors.

The allegation is that Trudeau’s officials pressured Wilson-Raybould last year to make use of the power the law gave her and allow SNC-Lavalin to negotiate a plea bargain.

It seems she took this as improper political interference and chose not to comply. Fine. That was her prerogative.

But it would have saved us all a lot of trouble if, having found herself at odds with the head of government over this important matter of public policy, she had taken the logical step and resigned from cabinet immediately.

And it would have helped if Trudeau had ditched his usual vague bromides and made it clear from the start that the rule of law does not require the negation of all politics.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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