Barbara Yaffe is a retired journalist who lives in Vancouver
The SNC-Lavalin controversy, if truly a scandal as so many pundits would have us believe, is one of the wimpiest I can recall in more than 40 years as a journalist covering federal and provincial governments.
No one pocketed envelopes of kickback-cash in dimly lit restaurants. No tainted food or blood products were distributed to Canadians. No one died or was physically harmed. Yet the Official Opposition Leader and political commentators are widely calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s head because he attempted to influence his then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to avoid criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement.
The PM’s specific transgression was refusing to accept a decision of the director of public prosecutions Kathleen Roussel, who reports to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, that criminal prosecution was the correct and only response to the company’s bribery transgressions in Libya some years ago.
In the government’s view, too much was at stake to allow a criminal prosecution to proceed because, in addition to garden-variety Quebec-related political considerations, some 9,000 Canadian jobs were at play. It’s certainly a fair, even responsible consideration, given that SNC-Lavalin – if successfully prosecuted – by law would then not be able to bid on federal contracts for a decade.
Perhaps the company ultimately would not have relocated its Quebec headquarters. But it’s a sure bet that employees and investors in the company would suffer under such a prohibition. SNC-Lavalin has not yet even been prosecuted and we already witnessing its declining fortunes. Vancouver-area mayors lately have turned thumbs down on having SNC-Lavalin bid on the city’s planned Arbutus subway line.
Job creation and retention are gold to governing politicians. They regularly contort themselves and offer no end of subsidies and tax concessions to lure even a few dozen jobs. Think about the goodies bidding cities across North America offered recently in a bid to coax Amazon to their locales.
Canada’s economy at the moment is experiencing significant challenges, despite its low jobless rate. It makes sense for Mr. Trudeau to want SNC-Lavalin to have the best shot at surviving and thriving despite past misdeeds. Moreover, as PM, the buck stops at his desk and it is not unusual that he would forcefully advise a cabinet minister if a departmental decision was unacceptable to him.
And remember, the decision in question was made by one individual, Ms. Roussel, based on her interpretation of the statute relating to deferred prosecution agreements. And the word interpretation is key here because legal decisions, while based on precedent, are always being interpreted. Lawyers in courtrooms argue different interpretations of law every day of the week. Perhaps Ms. Roussel’s decision is based on one particular interpretation. Maybe, probably, there are others.
But Ms. Wilson-Raybould dug in, acted as a purist, an idealist. Ms. Roussel’s could be the only worthy decision, end of story. Taxpayers of a more pragmatic bent – those worried about the SNC-Lavalin jobs – might believe it worth reopening Ms. Roussel’s decision to see whether a deferred prosecution might be the better option since such a route is indeed legal and available in this country.
This presumably was Mr. Trudeau’s thinking. The others who pressed or pushed or harangued Ms. Wilson-Raybould – including the Finance Minister’s chief of staff, the Privy Council Clerk, seniors staffers in the PMO – were doing his bidding. That’s how our system works.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, in having accepted the justice job in the first place, was never destined to be a law unto herself. She was part of a team and should have been open to PMO input – as long as any entreaties did not force her to do something unlawful. And they did not.
Of course she was also Canada’s attorney-general, a position meant to be independent and off limits to political interference, making her concern about being cajoled justifiable. And this is probably a good time to consider making justice and the attorney-general roles separate.
But when all is said and done, history will record that Ms. Wilson-Raybould stood firm, telling those who nagged her to buzz off. And her decision stands. Mr. Trudeau et al. have not overruled her. In the end, SNC-Lavalin is still facing criminal prosecution. Some scandal.
Yes, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has lost her dream portfolio but why should that be a scandal? She provoked the PM with her decision, showed herself to not be a team player (a notion robustly reaffirmed by her committee testimony against the Liberals last week) and caused Mr. Trudeau a potential political problem – and yes, Virginia, political factors do tend to influence politicians.