Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications to Stephen Harper, is a communications consultant based in London.
Call it a rookie mistake.
Justin Trudeau had barely settled into his new prime ministerial digs in the fall of 2015 when word leaked that his government was pausing a $668-million shipbuilding contract awarded to a Quebec company in the dying days of the Harper government.
The disclosure was an embarrassment, to be sure. But it was also par for the course. Leaks happen – especially when it has to do with the military. Nevertheless, the rookie Prime Minister fired back at the procurement establishment, pushing for an investigation into the leak.
But all Mr. Trudeau managed to do was set off a three-year chain of events he no longer controls.
The surprise announcement that the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) will abandon its pursuit of a breach-of-trust charge against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman – the Navy commander eventually accused of the alleged leak – avoids a public trial involving high-profile Liberals during this fall’s federal election campaign. Mr. Trudeau declared this coincidence did not emerge by fiat from his office, and the director of the PPSC insisted her prosecutors "exercise their discretion independently and free from any political or partisan consideration.” Still, strictly from a communications and strategic perspective, the Liberals can’t be feeling too low about potentially avoiding a nasty campaign-season surprise.
But the Norman affair is not over – not by a long shot. Indeed, the most striking thing about the Vice-Admiral’s case is how little we yet know about the government’s motivations in pursuing it with such vigour, and the dances that have been done as more and more Liberals became embroiled through documents requested by the defence. And unless Mr. Trudeau deals with the questions still hanging over this case forcefully and transparently, he could be in for another SNC-Lavalin-style headache.
Why was Mr. Trudeau’s government so desperate to find the leaker on a shipbuilding contract they ended up approving anyway? Why did the Department of National Defence reject Vice-Adm. Norman’s request for financial assistance due to the fact it claimed he was guilty of the charge, even though he had not been charged at the time and no formal internal investigation had been carried out? Why did his government not waive cabinet confidences and instead stonewall Vice-Adm. Norman’s lawyers’ request for documents, including communications between his top advisers on the subject? And why did Scott Brison, the minister behind the review of the shipbuilding contract in question, suddenly decide his future lay elsewhere than politics?
These avenues of inquiry do not get shut down by a short-circuiting of the case, especially since Vice-Adm. Norman has promised to tell Canadians his story. The SNC-Lavalin affair, which has certainly damaged Mr. Trudeau, is a case in point. The Prime Minister might be hoping that the issue will go away. He might be betting that if the Vice-Admiral gets back his post and his legal costs covered, a potentially ugly issue can be rendered moot.
It’s a poor bet.
If Mr. Trudeau had truly learned the just months-old lessons of SNC-Lavalin, the aborted court proceeding would be a starting point, not the end. He would be using it as an opportunity to be transparent about his motives for pursuing the leak and using it to show some contrition for the fact that a highly decorated member of the Canadian military has now had his name dragged through the mud, something he only stoked when he responded to a town-hall question about clearing Vice-Adm. Norman’s name: “The leaking of cabinet secrets doesn’t happen every day, and it’s something that we have to take very, very seriously.”
That Mr. Trudeau isn’t doing these things only gives Canadians licence to think the worst of him. That’s communications 101: Without a benign explanation being offered up, people will naturally suspect something more nefarious.
This should have been the enduring lesson of SNC-Lavalin: Sunshine, not sudden storms, is the best disinfectant. And like it or not, he and his government are now caught up in a second high-profile affair – one that has so many echoes of how he handled the last crisis voters can’t be blamed for thinking that Mr. Trudeau isn’t what he promised; that these continued rookie mistakes are the intentional actions of a political animal.
Even more damaging is the perception that’s left – the perception that Mr. Trudeau has a vindictive streak, because Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared to have been demoted for not bending to his will on a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC and because Vice-Adm. Norman appears to have been targeted for wanting the government to preserve its contract for a much-needed navy vessel.
The question for the Liberals now is whether they think their leader can learn to better respond to crises. Because a re-election campaign is no place for more rookie mistakes.