Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a chronic apologizer. He rightly apologized for several historic wrongdoings, including Canada’s colonial mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis. He has admitted to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation that “he’s made mistakes.”
So, why can’t he apologize for this?
The SNC-Lavalin story is back – and Mr. Trudeau is at the forefront, right where he should be.
The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’s report, released Wednesday, found the Prime Minister himself in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act on account of his alleged attempts to improperly put pressure on the attorney-general in the SNC-Lavalin matter.
In acknowledging the Prime Minister’s responsibility for his own actions and those of the staff who serve at his pleasure, the report confirms that the SNC-Lavalin story is really a story about Mr. Trudeau.
To state the obvious: This is a very bad day for Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals. Public opinion data over recent months, including a Leger poll released in June, have indicated that the Liberals were recovering from the events of the winter.
Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet back in February after having been shuffled from the Ministry of Justice to Veterans Affairs. She then gave damning testimony before a parliamentary committee, to the effect that the Prime Minister and his staff, the Clerk of the Privy Council, and ministerial staff from other offices had improperly pressed her in her role as attorney-general to seek a deferred prosecution arrangement for SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based company facing criminal prosecution.
Proverbial heads rolled at the highest levels of political and public office, as both the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and good friend, Gerald Butts, tendered their resignations.
For his part, the Prime Minister took every effort to distance himself from the whole mess. In a press conference back in March, before attempting to fly to Iqaluit (to apologize), he wanted to write the episode off as a teachable moment, saying: “Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having wrestled with these issues.”
He told Canadians he ought to have known about the “erosion of trust” between Mr. Butts and Ms. Wilson-Raybould that eventually blew up. No kidding.
Back then, he took no responsibility for this erosion of trust or for any of the events that led to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation. And in the press conference that followed the release of the Ethics Commissioner’s report, Mr. Trudeau accepted “full responsibility” for what happened – except, he didn’t. There was no apology. He’s standing his ground on his defence of Canadian jobs.
Mr. Butts’s departure months ago was meant to deflect blame from the Prime Minister and, surely, Mr. Butts would not be the first political staffer to make this move, to fall on a sword so that his boss can continue. But the breadth and scope of the power of the Prime Minister makes such deflection impossible.
The Prime Minister, in March, said that he ought to have kept a closer eye on things. But the commissioner’s report stands in contrast to the Prime Minister’s account by pointing to his direct involvement in the pressure campaign.
But still, no apology.
The conclusion of the Ethics Commissioner’s report is not likely to shock. The report finds a violation of Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act, which prohibits high-level officials from trying to influence other individuals’ decisions “to improperly further another person’s private interests.”
This is the very substance of the SNC-Lavalin affair; it was all about improper pressure and the unique existence of the attorney-general in a “bubble” within the context of the political fray in cabinet.
In an interview with the Ethics Commissioner, the Prime Minister made his case that exchanges with the attorney-general on the case were not improper, but instead were aimed at encouraging her to see alternatives to criminal prosecution, particularly in light of the potential economic consequences of SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.
Contrary to the Prime Minister’s perspective, the report finds evidence of a Prime Minister pressing the attorney-general to come to the rescue of a corporation known to be friendly to the Liberals. Again, this is very serious.
There can be no deflection of blame here; the buck stops with Mr. Trudeau. There’s an election around the corner. The voters hold the cards now.
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