Jen Gerson is a freelance writer based in Calgary
We are just two weeks into the SNC-Lavalin affair, and already this scandal has exhausted a country’s goodwill, its credulity – and its store of metaphors for political ritual-suicide and murder.
A weary nation can tolerate no more references to the bullet, the sword or the bus under which one is thrown.
A column attempting to bring some small measure of originality in describing the ugliness now afoot – the matter of the resignation of Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts – really should not be so difficult.
Mr. Butts turned in an extensive resignation letter on Monday amid the widening gyre of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which alleges the Prime Minister’s Office pressed then-justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to consider a deferred prosecution agreement that would have spared the Quebec firm from bribery charges stemming from its business affairs in Libya. The public prosecutor under her charge apparently declined, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted and the Liberals have struggled to craft a plausible denial ever since.
Still, Mr. Butts’s sudden resignation came as a surprise – mostly because it was, tactically speaking, not very smart.
He proclaimed his innocence in his letter, but the mere fact that he resigned serves as a clear signal that there is, in fact, some scandal to see.
Secondly, if one is to throw oneself under the – oops, that was the last one, I swear, so let’s go with “take a dive in a fight so an old buddy can clean up with the bookies” – one needs to actually take the dive and admit some form of wrongdoing. Mr. Butts failed to do so.
Lastly, Mr. Butts was one of the most powerful figures in government and his position in it had not become untenable. Why not wait until the public had heard what Ms. Wilson-Raybould had to say? It’s too early in this game to sacrifice your queen.
It is possible to imagine Mr. Butts is arrogant enough to believe that his showy resignation would be enough. In fact, he needed to crack the spy’s cyanide tooth to make amends for his own office’s shambolic reaction to the allegations.
In the hours after his resignation, Mr. Butts was showered with praise from friends and colleagues unwilling to speak ill of the dead on Twitter. But never before had Mr. Trudeau’s government been asked to cope with an allegation so serious as political interference into a criminal investigation. The PMO’s response has been two endless weeks of near-daily missteps, gaffes and mistakes. The miscalculations culminated in anonymous Liberal sources smearing the former justice minister with gendered insults that left Mr. Trudeau’s brand as a reconciliation-supporting feminist in tatters.
Meanwhile, Ms. Wilson-Raybould proved that she has friends in caucus; backbenchers and cabinet ministers sent cryptic notes of support on Twitter amid growing rumours of a caucus revolt.
These last weeks were the weakest moments of Mr. Butts’s vaunted political career, and a man with enemies can’t afford many of those. Even Mr. Butts’s fans must concede that his head was destined to be thrown to the league of rabid kittens after such a failure.
The problem, it is now clear, is that a Butts-shaped skull trophy doesn’t make the scandal disappear.
And so the curious affair now rests on the words of Ms. Wilson-Raybould herself – who has been in the enviable position, for a politician, of becoming more heroic by saying less.
Only a day after Mr. Butts’s resignation, Ms. Wilson-Raybould seems to be on side with her Liberal colleagues once again. On Tuesday, she addressed cabinet, spoke briefly to reporters and confirmed her place in the Liberal caucus.
Even curiouser, the Liberal-dominated House of Commons Justice Committee tasked with investigating this affair did a remarkable about-face. Less than a week after dismissing calls to invite Ms. Wilson-Raybould to testify to the committee – casting such demands as a “witch hunt” and “fishing expedition” – it inexplicably invited Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak. If the government won’t waive the client-solicitor privilege that has kept her mum, however, she likely won’t be able to tell the committee much of any interest. If she denies the allegations at the heart of the scandal, that would raise more questions, still.
Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault conceded the committee was “political theatre,” and there is no reason to doubt him now. Whatever the partisan committee investigates will be narrow in scope, and surely dominated by academics intended to distract the scandal-mongers with turgid testimony about the merits of deferred prosecution agreements, the proper role of the attorney-general and whatnot.
Nothing kills a scandal like a whiff of wonkery. Or so the Liberals must hope.
But if the Liberals think they can play off the SNC affair with a pinstripe spectacle in front of an impotent Justice Committee, I suspect Mr. Butts won’t be the last to take a swan dive into a bucket.