Peter Donolo is vice chair of H+K Strategies Canada. He served as director of communications for prime minister Jean Chrétien.
During the long lead-up to the 2015 election, I signed on to help Justin Trudeau prepare for the all-important leaders’ debates.
Debate prep is, almost by definition, a stressful and often brutal process – for the candidate. Not surprisingly, it took Mr. Trudeau a while to find his groove. In the end, the results speak for themselves, with a series of strong debate performances that were key to winning a majority mandate for the Liberals.
But the moment that I’ve replayed in my mind lately took place early in the process. It was a classic frigid February morning in Ottawa. Uncharacteristically, Mr. Trudeau hadn’t done his homework, making this session particularly desultory – so much so that we wound it up early. As he and his aides turned their attention to the next item – a media scrum on the Harper government’s decision to appeal a court ruling on the niqab ban – I decided to play devil’s advocate.
Knowing how this highly charged issue had vexed even the most well-meaning politician, I asked him, in a tone that was certainly too cheeky, “So what are you going to say about that?” His response was immediate and bell-like in its clarity. So much so that I still remember it word-for-word: “I’m going to say that I think it’s unconscionable that the prime minister of Canada, whose No. 1 job is to protect minorities, is targeting the most vulnerable and marginalized people in this country – all for political gain.” Period. Full stop. No talking points. No aides whispering in his ear. No painful, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other, hedging. No word salad.
That was the moment – many months before the election – that I knew Justin Trudeau would be the next prime minister.
What I saw was the elusive quality known as “royal jelly” – the magic mixture of core values, steely determination, personal integrity, authenticity and the ability to inspire others. We’ve seen it at various moments of the Trudeau prime ministership – welcoming Syrian refugees, standing up for Canadian economic interests in the NAFTA renegotiations.
It’s been in painfully short supply in the handling of SNC-Lavalin controversy which, whether or not it is a bona fide scandal, has undeniably turned into a political crisis for Mr. Trudeau and his government.
Unpacking the controversy, it’s easy to see why. There’s something in it to make everyone angry.
The perceived treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould has resonated with a great many women who, as Jennifer Ditchburn has written, “know what it means to be undermined, condescended to, overlooked and ignored in the workplace no matter how much they’ve achieved.”
First Nations leaders have decried the former minister’s treatment as a “stab in the back,” that belies Mr. Trudeau’s stated commitment to Indigenous issues.
The Trudeau government’s political opponents see a case of bending the rules to benefit corporate friends in Quebec – a favourite theme ever since 1986, when the Mulroney government awarded defence maintenance contracts to Montreal-based Bombardier over Manitoba’s Bristol Aerospace (an act which, not incidentally, helped launch the Reform Party, and gave birth to Canada’s present-day Conservative movement).
Finally, the national media has been growing tired and increasingly and openly contemptuousness of what some among them see as Mr. Trudeau’s penchant for symbolism and virtue signalling, and his sometimes numbing reliance on talking points. This has been their chance to show up the dissonance between the rhetoric of “doing politics differently” and the sausage-making aspect of statecraft that’s been exposed.
In other words, if the controversy has raged with white-hot intensity for the past month, one reason is that underlying it was a pile of dry kindling, just waiting for the spark.
But another reason is that the fire brigade hasn’t been performing. The Prime Minister has seemed stuck on message track. The candour and directness that I saw that winter morning four years ago have been replaced by talking points and heavily parsed words. It seems like he’s been reading a script written by a committee.
In fairness, he is in a very difficult – if not impossible – position. This is more than a he-said/she-said story of mixed signals and competing interpretations of the same events. The media has portrayed this in David and Goliath terms. His former minister is the “truth teller” standing up to grubby politicos.
That’s a hard paradigm to break – especially for a leader who is both an avowed feminist and a champion of Indigenous reconciliation. He has had to refute her version of events without impugning her, a virtual mission impossible. And the situation has only become more difficult, as a second minister – Jane Philpott, perhaps the most universally respected member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet – resigned in solidarity with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, cementing the latter’s claim on the moral high ground.
How does Mr. Trudeau get through this firestorm?
I have worked closely with political leaders – at all three levels of government – for the better part of three decades. I’ve seen my share of dumpster fires. But to be honest, there is something of the Anna Karenina principle at play – just as no two unhappy families are alike, neither are any two political crises.
That said, there are some key areas that demand attention.
With Gerald Butts’s justice-committee testimony this week – which was echoed by the PM in his news conference the next day – a coherent counternarrative to the Wilson-Raybould version of events has finally been established. That’s important because it provides Liberal MPs and loyalists with a storyline on which they can finally hang their hats.
But Liberals MPs are certain to be deeply spooked by the past month. Add to that the fact that two of their fellow MPs are being hailed for taking a bold stand on principle by resigning from cabinet and repudiating their party, all the while remaining in caucus. That puts every other Liberal MP in the position of looking like a hack, compared with the principled position of the two former ministers and the two or three MPs who are supporting them.
Parties are like families – with all the attendant pathologies. And although this may be at odds with the mantra of “doing politics differently,” a party leader is like a parent, sorting out rivalries, bringing people together, dispensing equal parts discipline and encouragement. Surprisingly, given his unabashedly touchy-feely persona, Mr. Trudeau is reputed to be somewhat aloof from his caucus and cabinet colleagues. If that is the case, it needs to change now.
He needs to wrap his arms around his MPs, and return caucus meetings to MP-only events, with no staff present. It would also be wise to resist the temptation to turf the former ministers; it would only add to the flames at a time the PM is trying to extinguish them. After all, if Jean Chrétien could put up with the presence of Paul Martin in his caucus for more than a year after Mr. Martin had left cabinet in a brutal play to unseat a sitting PM, then Mr. Trudeau can certainly tolerate the presence of dissenting MPs for the next few months.
Then there is the unresolved issue of the deferred-prosecution agreement (DPA) for SNC-Lavalin. The new Justice Minister, David Lametti, has not ruled it out. Moreover, Mr. Trudeau and others in his government continue to make the case for the legitimacy of using the DPA to save thousands of jobs.
The Prime Minister and his government need a DPA endgame, and they need to work toward it. Do they plan to invoke it for SNC-Lavalin? If so, they need to socialize the media and public for that eventual decision and its merits – avoiding the fatal mistake they made the first time around, when they slipped the DPA legislation into a federal budget omnibus bill, looking and acting as if they had something to hide. If, indeed, they plan on proceeding down the DPA route at this stage, they need to hang a lantern on it.
On the other hand, if they have decided that the DPA is too politically toxic, they should start making that clear now. The alternative, standing on both sides of the fence, is both painful and unsustainable.
Finally, of course, Mr. Trudeau needs to impel his team through this storm. In words often attributed to Winston Churchill: "If you are going through hell, keep going.”
That means less explanation (the efforts by the PM and Mr. Butts to provide context over the past few days about the idea of moving Ms. Wilson-Raybould to an Indigenous cabinet portfolio only provoked further outrage from First Nation leaders and advocates), and more mitigation: staff changes, and third party reviews of structures such as the combined role of the minister of justice and attorney-general.
That said, the Canadian public needs to see more of the Justin Trudeau I saw in February of 2015. It may not have been much on view lately, but it’s there.
At key moments in his career, the Prime Minister has been widely – and wrongly – underestimated. Observers and critics should be wary of making the same mistake again.