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 the latest development in the controversy around SNC-Lavalin that is captivating political watchers in Ottawa and beyond, we now have text messages and other files submitted by Jody Wilson-Raybould to the justice committee, including a recorded phone call between the former minister of justice and attorney-general, and Michael Wernick, the soon-to-be former Clerk of the Privy Council.
And while there were no new surprises in the files – the content of the phone call was, to a large extent, already communicated in testimony before the House of Commons justice committee – the recording is telling about the people on the phone, and in a way damning of one person who was not: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the call, Mr. Wernick drew Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s attention to Mr. Trudeau’s “very firm mood” on the SNC-Lavalin file. The Prime Minister, he relayed, was looking to know why the deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) option was not being pursued, particularly in light of the threat of major job losses on top of the ones lost in Oshawa and Calgary. In Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s eyes, the importance of these considerations did not justify meddling in a criminal trial.
It is here where the two are clearly just not on the same page: She sees the Prime Minister’s suggestion for her to “use all the tools you lawfully have at your disposal” as a form of political interference in this case. The Clerk emphasized the lawfulness of the DPA, a point with which Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not disagree: “I know I have a tool under the prosecution act that I can use," she said; "I do not believe it is appropriate to use it in this case.”
Although no new facts came to light, the recording raises several important points. First, Mr. Wernick did not apply inappropriate pressure during the course of this conversation. There was a clear difference in perspective, but it was an exchange of information; there were no threats or bribes, not even a raised voice. Everyone seemed to hang up the phone on civil terms. But it is not immediately clear why he – and not the Prime Minister himself – was communicating the Prime Minister’s mood and preferences on the file. Why aren’t we listening to a recording of a conversation between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister, rather than the Clerk?
To the extent that the Clerk’s communications to Ms. Wilson-Raybould might have, in the perspective of some listeners, crossed a line into partisan “pressure,” it is in the context of an absentee Prime Minister who failed to take the file in hand, as he ought to have done if it was as important to him as Mr. Wernick relayed. There is only one Prime Minister, and this mess is on him. His flaky press conference on the subject before attempting to fly to Iqaluit to apologize for the government’s historic mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis, demonstrated just how disconnected he is from the magnitude of the situation. The Clerk seems to have been left to do his bidding, as was Gerald Butts, who ended up resigning as Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary as a result of the breakdown in trust that occurred between the PMO and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. It’s all indicative of a Prime Minister whose approach to governance is hands-off to his detriment.
Many observers have accused the Clerk of having been inappropriately partisan, political, and even hostile in his testimony before the justice committee. However, as we learn that he was unknowingly tape-recorded by a minister of the Crown in a conversation on a matter before the government, it now makes plenty of sense that he was hot under the collar. No rational person in his situation and position would ever anticipate such a bizarre possibility. But Mr. Wernick, this phone call makes clear, did nothing other than his job on this matter. The tape and his testimony are consistent.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, however, indicated several times during the recording that she was “uncomfortable” and that she felt the conversation that she was having with the Clerk was “inappropriate.” If this was truly how she felt, why did she not hang up? Oh, right: She did not hang up because the tape was running. She herself called her decision to record the phone call, which she did because an aide was not present, an “extraordinary and otherwise inappropriate step."
There is absolutely no path forward for Ms. Wilson-Raybould as a member of the Liberal caucus or as a Liberal candidate. She’s doing her level best to hand the election to the opposition, and there is no way for the Liberals to trust her. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has more questions to answer. But after all the hubbub around these simultaneously unsurprising and remarkable submissions, though, only one thing is clear: There are no heroes in this story.