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Opinion In Canadian history, there has rarely been a government meltdown like this

The Prime Minister’s principal secretary and policy architect, Gerald Butts, resigns from the Prime Minister’s Office. Veterans Affairs minister Jody Wilson-Raybould resigns from cabinet. Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, saying she has lost faith in her government, resigns from cabinet, too.

That’s three players at the heart of Justin Trudeau’s ministry, gone in the space of three weeks, in an election year. In the annals of Canadian governance, a meltdown of this magnitude has rarely been witnessed.

To find a precedent that has taken a worse immediate toll than this crisis around potential judicial interference from the PMO, we’d have to look back to the Pacific scandal of 1873, which toppled John A. Macdonald’s Tory administration, or to the 1896 cabinet revolt in which seven ministers resigned, bringing down prime minister Mackenzie Bowell over the Manitoba schools question.

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In 1963, the Bomarc Missile Crisis shattered John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government when three senior ministers – Doug Harkness, Pierre Sevigny and George Hees – resigned from cabinet owing to the prime minister’s blundering, causing the government to fall. But this was, as in the case of Bowell, a crisis of competence, not a scandalous abuse of power.

Some have made the case that the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio is not a scandal. No laws were broken; undue influence was rendered but no decision was forced on then-attorney-general Wilson-Raybould. But what gives the story exceptional and scandalous heft is the fallout. Some other federal government controversies in which the initial deed was arguably worse were contained. The fallout from SNC-Lavalin is already grave and, unless Mr. Butts is able to provide exculpatory explanations in justice committee testimony Wednesday, there is possibly much more to come.

The crisis has broken any claim the Trudeau government had as one of high principle and probity, a government positioned to contrast with what Canadians had seen in the stewardships of Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien.

Having written books on both these prime ministers that waded deeply into their ethical practices, my initial impression was that despite the seriousness of the judicial interference controversy, Mr. Trudeau’s record was not as bad on abuse of power as either of them.

But the resignation of Ms. Philpott takes this crisis to a new level. Her reputation for integrity was unsurpassed in the Trudeau cabinet. Her leaving sends a larger message.

Under Jean Chrétien came the sponsorship scandal, a story broken by this newspaper (as was the SNC-Lavalin affair). The scandal contributed significantly to the Liberals’ loss of support under new leader Paul Martin, who had called the Gomery inquiry to probe the malfeasance – a disastrous move, as it kept the scandal in the public eye. Mr. Trudeau will surely want to avoid such an inquiry. Mr. Chrétien also faced an extended condemnation over government grants and loans, which poured like an avalanche into his Quebec riding.

Then there was the Harper government, which promised the high road but took the low one. Among its abuses: the hush-money cover-up in the Senate-expenses scandal as detailed in a scathing RCMP affidavit; interference with an independent judiciary in the form of Mr. Harper’s maligning of then-Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin; the Harper government being found in contempt in Parliament, the first time this ever occurred; the robocalls scam and pursuant smearing of Elections Canada; the muzzling of the science community; and repeated duplicity as documented by the Auditor-General on spending for F-35 fighter jets.

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Secrecy and extreme partisanship bordered on paranoia. The perception that Mr. Harper was a grim authoritarian paved the way for Mr. Trudeau’s “sunny ways.”

Such ways have rarely prevailed in Ottawa. In Brian Mulroney’s government, several ministers resigned owing to ethics violations. After Mr. Mulroney left office, an inquiry revealed that he acted in an “inappropriate" way when he accepted at least $225,000 from lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

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The report by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant said Mr. Mulroney “failed to live up to the standard of conduct that he himself adopted in the 1985 ethics code.”

The Mackenzie King government gave us the Beauharnois kickback scandal. The Lester Pearson government was plagued by the resignation of several ministers from Quebec owing to ethical transgressions. Pierre Trudeau made a slew of egregious patronage appointments just before leaving office, undermining his successor John Turner.

Justin Trudeau’s team initially showed signs of a new morality, but then began acting like the others. It centralized power. It curbed access to information. It left itself open to charges of judicial interference, to which it has responded with ineptitude.

There was so much grubby history for the Trudeau team to look back on and to learn from. It has failed the test.

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