The SNC-Lavalin affair, which is consuming all the oxygen in the capital and has ground the Liberal government to a virtual halt, is a scandal of a different sort.
There is no wealthy entrepreneur underwriting the governing party’s election campaign in anticipation of landing a contract to build a transcontinental railroad, as was the case in the Pacific scandal of the 1870s.
There is no sleazy lobbyist slipping envelopes filled with $1,000 bills to a former prime minister, as there was in the contemporary Airbus scandal.
There are no corrupt partisans diverting millions in government advertising funds into their party’s piggybank or into their own pockets, as there were in the Sponsorship scandal.
And there is no aide to the prime minister writing a $90,000 personal cheque to silence a troublesome senator whose claims of a political coverup were vexing the PM, as there was in the Mike Duffy/Senate expenses scandal.
No, this new scandal is unlike all others. It doesn’t have the same sort of dodgy characters or blatant abuses. At its nub is a seemingly arcane issue: at what point does political debate end and political pressure begin? And when does that pressure become “undue” or “inappropriate?” Where can the lines be drawn?
As former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould sees it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or at least key members of his staff, crossed those lines by trying to pressure her to drop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavallin for fraud and bribery in Libya years ago, and instead to negotiate a plea-bargain settlement with the company that would enable it to continue to bid on federal contracts.
As the Prime Minister sees it – and his view was supported adamantly last week by Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick – what Wilson-Raybould interpreted as pressure was nothing more sinister than robust debate among ministers, some of whom were primarily concerned with protecting the jobs of the 9.000-plus Canadians who work for the giant engineering and construction company, about one-third of them in Quebec.
Obviously, discussion, even intense debate over the preservation of so many well-paying jobs – a debate that extends to consideration of the survival of SNC in Canada – is entirely appropriate among cabinet members. The issue is political, and cabinet ministers are political creatures.
As Justice Minister, Wilson-Rayboult was one of the political creatures. The problem is she had to wear two hats. In her Justice hat, she was free to participate in the political debate. As Attorney General, she was not. She had to be guided by the law, not by political considerations.
(There is a case for splitting the justice and attorney general responsibilities, perhaps by making the AG a non-cabinet position, but that’s a discussion for another day, as is the case for amending the Lobbying Act to curtail the amount of access that lobbyists enjoy to cabinet ministers and MPs.
(SNC’s full-court press on Parliament Hill is reminiscent of the frantic lobbying of Karlheinz Schreiber and Frank Moores three decades ago, as they twisted every arm they could reach to have Air Canada, a Crown corporation in those days, buy a fleet of Airbus passenger jets, and to persuade the Brian Mulroney government to support the creation of an armoured-vehicle industry in Cape Breton. They won the plane deal, but lost on the Cape Breton venture.)
The absence of sinister characters, or a diversion of public funds, or a betrayal of the public interest does not lesson the gravity of the SNC scandal for the Liberals. It reveals how far removed they are from practising the open government they preach. They share the disinclination of all institutions, especially governments, to be transparent when they think they don’t have to be. When challenged, they choose evasion over candor.
The scandal is only two weeks old, but it is already costing Trudeau something precious: the trust of voters who thought he embraced a higher standard than other politicians.
Loss of trust leads to loss of elections.