Political life in democratic societies is difficult because politics within a system of self-government demands a lot of elected representatives and public officials. And those demands are not always easy or fair. The past month or so of federal politics in Canada bears this out.
The SNC-Lavalin affair has gripped the country, capturing the attention of a population that typically tends to pay just casual attention to public affairs. But the resignation of a prominent Cabinet minister — Jody Wilson-Raybould — over the government’s attempts to pressure her to secure a deferred prosecution agreement for the Quebec engineering firm is extraordinary. So is the subsequent fallout, including the resignation of the prime minister’s principal secretary and close friend, Gerald Butts, and of a second prominent Cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, who said she no longer had confidence in the government’s handling of the matter.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has been investigating the matter for weeks. Hundreds of questions have been asked of a handful of witnesses over several hours so far. This week, Butts testified along with Deputy Justice Minister Nathalie Drouin and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick (for the second time).
These testimonies left plenty of questions unanswered, and a chasm between what Wilson-Raybould has said and what Butts and Wernick have said — a chasm that must be bridged with specifics about who knew what, what they intended, and how and when they went about trying to secure those intentions.
It appears that the Prime Minister’s Office was worried about both public policy and partisan political considerations when seeking a deal for SNC-Lavalin. The office was concerned that the large engineering firm would shed 9,000 jobs and move its headquarters to the United Kingdom (effects that seem unlikely or, at least, not as catastrophic as some are claiming) if it was successfully prosecuted and banned from bidding on federal government contracts for a decade.
It’s clear that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted a deferred prosecution agreement. Former attorney general Wilson-Raybould did not, but felt strong (and, she suggests, inappropriate) pressure to deliver one. The final decision on the matter was meant to be hers alone. It wasn’t.
It also seems that all of the people involved believed that they were doing the right thing for a country they care about, although given corporate coziness in Ottawa, there may have been other familiarities that affected judgments.
The committee voted on a handful of motions that broke along partisan lines — 5-4, with the Liberal-dominated group stonewalling opposition members. These motions included attempts to gather communications between Butts and Trudeau, among others, and to recall Wilson-Raybould and four new witnesses, including the prime minister’s chief of staff.
Questioning from Liberal members of Parliament was also far gentler and more credulous than it ought to have been. Temporizing, stonewalling and the easy treatment of friendly witnesses are not helpful. Neither is breaking for two weeks and not being scheduled to return to meet until March 19 — the day the federal budget is to be delivered.
Then, on Thursday morning, Trudeau tried to address the matter in a short news conference in which he did not apologize or admit wrongdoing. Instead, he focused on “lessons" learned and, encouragingly, the prospect of administrative reform and splitting the attorney general and justice minister roles. But his address failed to answer any of the open questions hanging over the entire controversy.
As much as the committee has done good work to date (largely thanks to opposition efforts) — and as much as the prime minister has tried to explain himself — it looks as though it’s time to take things to the next level.
In February, the New Democrats called for a public inquiry into the affair, as did the Green Party. It’s time to take those calls seriously. An independent, nonpartisan investigation with the power to compel witnesses under oath and to gather materials as it sees fit would help satisfy the democratic need to not only strive for openness, transparency and investigative rigor, but also to be perceived to be doing just that without partisan motivation.
Public inquiries ought to be extraordinary occurrences. But with the current controversy, the public interest — including the maintenance of public trust in democratic institutions — calls for something extraordinary.
The Liberal government will likely oppose this call for the same reason that opposition parties will likely support it: An inquiry, just by being called, will hurt the governing party in an election year. Trudeau is already in trouble. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s Éric Grenier reports that the prime minister’s approval rating has hit a new low and the Conservative Party has overtaken Liberals in the polls. A survey by Abacus Data suggests that government disapproval has jumped a few points and, of those following the controversy closely, 29 percent think the prime minister should “definitely” resign — although those numbers vary by partisan affiliation. The upshot is that this affair has already harmed the Liberals and compromised their reelection chances. The longer it remains in the news, especially under the lens of an inquiry, the worse it will be for them, whatever the inquiry might find.
Well, that’s just too bad. In democracies, the public trust is sacred. It’s the foundation on which self-government rests. When perceived breaches of norms occur, especially potentially serious ones, the public interest must be placed above all else and the truth must come out. That’s the burden of being in government — you have more control over public life, but you also have more responsibility for what happens on your watch.