Full public disclosure is a principle that politicians embrace as though it were Holy Writ when they are on the outside looking in. But when they are inside, sitting around the cabinet table and deciding how much information to share with the public, it is a different story. As little as possible becomes the mantra.
Canadians have seen this evolution occur in the last two political regimes. Justin Trudeau was an ardent advocate for open government when campaigning in 2015 to unseat the Conservatives, who had run a famously secretive regime under Stephen Harper.
In office, Trudeau has proved to be almost as controlling. Reporters who make regular use of Access to Information say it can be even more difficult to get information out of the Trudeau Liberals than it was out of the Harper Conservatives. The current SNC-Lavalin controversy has exposed the Prime Minister’s inept efforts to misdirect, withhold and weasel his way out of tough questions.
Meanwhile, under their new leader Andrew Scheer, the Conservatives have come full circle, reborn as apostles of full public disclosure. Well, perhaps not entirely full. It took a newspaper story on the weekend to reveal what Scheer had not revealed when he was pummeling Trudeau in the Commons – that he, too, had been lobbied by SNC-Lavalin.
The giant Canadian engineering and construction company undoubtedly wanted to know what a Scheer government would do if the Conservatives were to win the general election in October: would it proceed with criminal prosecution of the company over $47 million in bribes it allegedly paid to officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011? Or would it replace the criminal charges with a negotiated “deferred prosecution agreement” (or DPA)?
Under a DPA, the company would repent its sins, show it had cleansed itself of corruption, pay hefty fines, promise to stay on the straight and narrow – and remain eligible to bid on government contracts. No one would go to jail.
Full disclosure implies that the public be told what Scheer promised, or signalled, to SNC-Lavalin about the action a Conservative government might take on the controversial file.
There are other, more immediate, questions that cry out for answers from the Liberals, including Trudeau, former Justice Minister/Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, her successor David Lametti and Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s old friend and Principal Secretary in the PMO – Butts being the man of whom insiders say, “When Gerald’s lips move, Trudeau speaks.”
Why was Wilson-Raybould demoted from Justice to Veteran Affairs? Was it because she crossed the powerful Butts and refused to order the Director of Public Prosecutions to drop the criminal case and proceed by way of DPA, as the company wanted?
The public deserves better than “No comment” from Wilson-Raybould. She has made it clear she felt pressure. She discussed the case with Butts. Was he the source of the pressure she felt? How much pressure? Can pressure distinguished from vigorous advocacy, as seemed to happen with SNC-Lavalin?
When Trudeau is asked about pressure, he plays the (not-so) Artful Dodger with semantics, claiming his office did not “direct” Wilson-Raybould to do anything. But what about pressure? While Trudeau ducks, Lametti, the new AG says there wasn’t any pressure – but he won’t support an inquiry by a parliamentary committee.
“There hasn’t been anything to my mind that justifies a committee investigation,” Lametti, who is on the opposition’s list of potential witnesses, told CTV’s “Question Period” on the weekend. What then, one asks, would justify a committee investigation?
Although the Commons is not sitting this week, the pressure for disclosure will increase. Lametti seemed to indicate the direction the controversy is heading when he observed on “Question Period” that there “remains a possibility” he could direct the prosecution service to drop the corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin and proceed instead to a much milder deferred prosecution agreement.
Given the importance of SNC-Lavalin to employment is Quebec, especially in an election year, that seems the likely outcome.
But the public is surely entitled to an explanation of the government’s reasons. And to an explanation as to why the Liberals could have not managed the issue without making Jody Wilson-Raybould, a valuable minister, a sacrificial lamb.
Finally, on Monday afternoon, the federal ethics commissioner announced an investigation into allegations the PMO had pressured Wilson-Raybould to seek a mutually agreeable DPA instead of criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin. Will we get some answers now?