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Opinion There goes Canada’s moral high ground – and, possibly, its Huawei case

David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. His first book, Too Dumb for Democracy?, will be published in March.

Governments in Canada tend to bleed to death from a thousand and a thousand and a thousand more cuts. Most are self-inflicted wounds; some are avoidable. But no prime minister makes it through a ministry unscathed.

The Trudeau government, however, has pledged to be different: honest, positive, open, sunny. It has indicated it wants to play things by the book – “a moral leader of the free world,” per a recent piece in The New York Times. Between their efforts to assemble the Lima Group toward a solution in Venezuela and their campaign to resettle high-profile refugees such as Rahaf Mohammed, the Liberals have tried to build virtue into both their domestic and foreign-policy brand. If the bar for them is high, then it’s because they have placed it way, way, way up there.

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Way up there is where we encounter the challenge that Justin Trudeau faces this week. According to a Globe and Mail report, the Prime Minister’s Office pressed Jody Wilson-Raybould, previously the justice minister and attorney-general, to intervene in the case against SNC-Lavalin – the Montreal engineering and construction firm that’s alleged to have bribed officials in Libya under Moammar Gadhafi while also defrauding organizations there to the raucous tune of millions and millions of dollars – and secure a deferred prosecution arrangement. Mr. Trudeau has said no one “directed” Ms. Wilson-Raybould to do that; he called the specific phrasing of that claim “false.” What is true, though, is that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her cabinet portfolio to the veterans-affairs file just weeks ago. It was widely seen as a demotion for Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister.

Now, look beyond Ottawa and what this affair signals about Mr. Trudeau’s electoral interest in Quebec – where SNC-Lavalin is an economic and political force – and toward Beijing. Amidst one of the most delicate international incidents here since Igor Gouzenko defected from the Soviet Union in 1945 and exposed communist spying in the West, we may have just given China’s Xi Jinping the gift of maple-flavoured hypocrisy.

And now the Trudeau government risks something even worse than a domestic scandal near election time: It could lose the moral high ground on the international stage that it’s worked so hard to claim.

The case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese national arrested by Canada per our extradition treaty with the United States, is working its way through the courts. China has reacted swiftly and belligerently to the arrest, claiming political interference and demanding her release while detaining two Canadians on dubious charges. But even as U.S. President Donald Trump openly muses about leveraging Ms. Meng’s detention during trade talks – and after John McCallum lost his ambassador job over twice suggesting that China would have a case in claiming this constituted political interference – Ottawa has clung tightly to one claim: Canada follows the rule of law.

A promise to obey the law is a good one, especially when the comparison is between Canada’s and China’s approaches to the administration of justice. There is no moral equivalence between the two: One is a (flawed) liberal democracy, largely open and free, while the other is governed by an authoritarian regime that often applies its idea of justice arbitrarily. But Mr. Trudeau’s claim that politics would stay out of the matter was always a bit deceptive, because the rule of law, in the Meng affair, is intrinsically political. The justice minister, after all, ultimately decides on whether extradition will occur.

Now it’s easier for China – or anyone else – to undermine Canada’s central claim to political neutrality. Mr. Xi’s government can now say that while Canada claims to be different than China, it’s actually all politics, anywhere you go.

He would be nearly right, too, because that’s often the case. It’s naive to think that politics never plays a role in the administration of justice. The law often provides explicit space for political discretion and intervention; sometimes exceptions to the rule, or politically directed applications of it, are necessary. In the SNC-Lavalin case, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s website says that in nearly all instances, the attorney-general “can issue a directive to the director of public prosecutions about a prosecution or even assume conduct of a prosecution, but must do so in writing and a notice must be published in the Canada Gazette.”

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But what sullies Mr. Trudeau’s claim to purity is the fact that while he goes on about the importance of the rule of law, he is also drawing on the guiding democratic principles that underwrite it – and undermining both in practice. Democracy and the rule of law are built on transparency and public reasoning to the extent that it’s possible to disclose any such thing when it comes to legal cases. That’s what we expect: to be able to look at the rule, look at any exceptions or ad-hoc amendments of it, and then judge for ourselves whether instances of political intervention are acceptable. The public may then adjust its expectations or donations or votes or other political resources accordingly.

There was no written notice of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s intent to direct the case, because she said no. But the Globe and Mail report at least suggests the PMO wanted to interfere, and Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s ensuing demotion and replacement with Quebec MP David Lametti suggests it didn’t want to take no for an answer. Even the smallest hint of perceived political interference is a blow to an idea that is especially vital now: that the rule of law is above strategic tampering. And if Canadians become frustrated by the lack of transparency around SNC-Lavalin, they – and the international community – might notice that there hasn’t been much around the Meng case, either. There goes our high horse, off into the sunset without us.

What happens next with the SNC-Lavalin affair is important. In a democracy, it’s incumbent on leaders to justify their actions publicly. This isn’t merely the right thing to do; trust in the rule of law is how public institutions and our political model are preserved. Shortcomings in one or two legal cases because of reports of political meddling rightly raise doubts around the world about whether the model we’re so proud of is something actually worth emulating. In fact, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said it best, in a parting and intriguing memo issued when she was shuffled out of her post: “It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence.”

There is a way forward. The public must be given every detail of the matter immediately so that we can make up our minds about whether what happened was appropriate. If Canada wishes to build its international image upon the moral high ground, the Trudeau government must do much better at home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is denying that his office 'directed' former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal prosecution. The Globe and Mail never reported that officials in Mr. Trudeau’s office had directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to take action – only that she was pressured to do so and declined.
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