But will any of this matter when Canadians go to the polls in October? Perhaps a bit, but less than you might expect.
After the Liberals on the committee ended their investigation, arguing they had learned everything they needed to learn and that no rules or laws were broken, opposition members threatened retaliation. The Conservative Party committed themselves to delaying the budget. That didn’t work. There was some parliamentary stalling — including a marathon, overnight voting session— and a walkout that caught the eye of keen observers, but the stunt failed. Then, former cabinet minister Jane Philpott gave an interview in which she said “there’s much more to the story that needs to be told.” After that came leaks about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his former justice minister, Wilson-Raybould, clashing over a Supreme Court of Canada nominee, and yet another Liberal blocking move, as government-side members of Parliament on the ethics committee shut down attempts to launch an investigation into the matter.
Opposition frustration is palpable. The desire to know more is understandable. Both might also be futile.
The Liberals are playing a cynical game of stalls and half-measures, but it looks like they have a good shot to win it, and the upcoming election. It’s hard to imagine that the SNC-Lavalin story and the feud within the Liberal Party will ever end. But it will. Everything does.
The Liberal strategy is sneaky and clever. Their plan is to shut down the committee investigation, repeat “jobs, jobs, jobs” as a defense, claim that the ethics commissioner’s probe is plenty (the commissioner is on medical leave, and his office is not, strictly speaking, geared toward such matters), appoint a former Liberal cabinet minister — highly respected and competent — to look into splitting the attorney general and justice minister positions, kick the can down the road to the election, and wait for rally-time come the fall.
Those who support the government and argue there’s nothing to the SNC scandal, or it’s about other, more nefarious things that have nothing to do with the well-meaning prime minister and those around him, may be right.
But I’m not convinced. The fact is that we don’t know. That’s the problem. We have a series of incompatible stories and inconsistent interpretations of events. It seems there were no laws broken, importantly, but those involved in the affair may have crossed ethical boundaries. Voters, the ultimate judges of the political record, will have to make up their minds based on the information they have — or can remember in six months. That’s probably good news for the lot that’s currently in power.
The Liberals are banking, surely, on the hope that they’ll be seen as having done something about this despite preventing a proper and full investigation — or public inquiry — and depriving the kerfuffle of the oxygen it needs to keep going. In June, the House of Commons is expected to rise for the summer. That’s the end of parliamentary mechanisms and tricks for the opposition parties. Clever, clever.
The government should be able to ride the recently released budget (which received muted coverage) and some end-of-calendar bills through the spring, deflecting opposition attacks, and calming and rallying their own caucus. Next, they’ll hope that Canadians will have already made up their minds about the SNC affair, get tired of the whole mess and move on before summer hits and everybody tunes out. Then it’s the fall and time to vote.
During the election, the Liberals will warn Canadians about the Conservatives, scaremongering by citing the possible return of “Harper’s party,” thus simultaneously fighting the election against the old boss and signaling the inadequacies of the new boss. In 2015, the Liberals ran a slick campaign, and they’ll be well-positioned to do it again — even if they can’t adopt the hopeful rhetoric that helped them form government in the first place. The Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens and also-rans might try to remind the country about SNC and other scandals, but that messaging will be trickier in the context of an election in which voters will not just be focused on past misdeeds but also on what parties are offering to do for them going forward.
More than a century ago, Canada’s first and booziest prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was called a drunk by a supporter of the opposition leader George Brown. “Yes,” Macdonald replied. “But the people prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”
Trudeau finds himself in a similar spot, and he’s betting his government that the people will prefer him surrounded by a haze of uncertainty over the SNC-Lavalin affair to Andrew Scheer or Jagmeet Singh. It’s a bet he might very well win.