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Opinion In Ottawa politics, there’s pressure … and then there’s ‘pressure’

Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine. For two years beginning in the summer of 2015, she worked in the Privy Council Office on Executive Interchange.

In his testimony before the standing committee on justice and human rights, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick gave us the clearest, most comprehensive account yet of what allegedly transpired behind closed doors between former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Prime Minister’s Office, SNC-Lavalin and Mr. Wernick himself. Canadian politics has been gripped for weeks by accusations that the PMO put “pressure” on the former minister, in her role as attorney-general, to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.

Mr. Wernick’s testimony confirmed that, indeed, there was pressure. But he maintained that none of it was inappropriate, undue or unlawful. Further, he made assurances to the effect that the current government conducts itself according to the highest ethical standards and that Canadians ought not be worried about the rule of law in this country.

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The clerk’s preparedness for the committee’s questions, his recollection of detail, his unwavering tone and his direct communication style made for a very impactful appearance, to say nothing of the words themselves. His testimony directly challenges what, according to Globe sources, Ms. Wilson-Raybould told federal cabinet ministers on Tuesday: that the pressure put upon her was improper.

Since this saga started, a main point of contention and confusion has been the meaning and implication of the word “pressure.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted, immediately after the story broke, that no one in his office had “directed” the former attorney-general in the SNC-Lavalin case. But that wasn’t the accusation. There are many shades of grey between direction and pressure, and the latter term is open to much interpretation.

In some cases, pressure is right up in your face: A bribe, for instance, or a specific threat of harm could be thought of as “hard” pressure, in the sense that these actions are explicit and linked to direct consequences. Soft pressure, by contrast, takes a less obvious, but often omnipresent, form. The existence of a power imbalance, and the awareness of this reality by the parties in question, can be all that is needed for this kind of pressure to apply. In these cases, heated discussions that, on the surface, are not improper, can take on a different meaning in the context of the overarching power relationships that exist.

PMOs over the years have been accused of holding too much power. This phenomenon is not seen to be limited to a particular political party, group or individual, but instead is commonly understood to be a normal (and perhaps unavoidable) symptom of Westminster parliamentary government. This power stems from a number of sources, including the Prime Minister’s authority to appoint, shuffle and dismiss ministers, sign off on nomination papers for party candidates, set the policy direction for the party and affect committee assignments. Party discipline is the glue that holds this concentration of power together. No member of caucus is immune from the PMO’s reach.

If the PMO (regardless of party) is as powerful as scholarly and journalistic reports suggest, it is possible that any and all ministers could feel pressed at different times. Whether this pressure crosses a line into something that is undue, improper or unlawful is the more complicated matter. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has expressed her hope that she will be able to “speak my truth.” Clearly, it is likely that her truth is different than Mr. Wernick’s.

The clerk’s testimony noted that, if Ms. Wilson-Raybould had felt that undue pressure had been applied, she had the option of filing such a complaint with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. Further to this, the clerk seemed confident that the commissioner could ably investigate the matter. The New Democratic Party has already referred the matter to Commissioner Mario Dion, who has indicated that he will investigate. He is particularly concerned about a potential violation of Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act which prohibits public-office holders from trying to influence decisions in ways that could further someone’s private interests. At the risk of sounding like a wet blanket, it’s important to note that the ethics rules in place for public office holders tend to define “interests” very narrowly. Actions that offend the public’s sense of what it means to be ethical can easily slip through the cracks of our ethics regime.

Although Mr. Wernick’s testimony offered clarity in many ways, we are still left with more questions than answers. For instance, if Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt that the pressure applied to her was inappropriate, why did she not resign sooner? In light of the questions and answers raised by Mr. Wernick’s appearance, the appetite for the former attorney-general’s testimony is even greater than before.

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