Justin Trudeau wants to remind you that he is a new-style leader. The Prime Minister doesn’t believe in giving orders. Instead, he believes in "listening, learning, and compassion.” He believes in fostering an environment where "ministers, caucus and staff feel comfortable coming to me when they have concerns. “ Jody Wilson-Raybould “did not come to me,” he said on Thursday, sounding vaguely hurt.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Trudeau made his first effort to seriously address the crisis in his government over the SNC-Lavalin affair. One challenge was to explain the embarrassing fact that the former justice minister had a fundamental, long-standing policy disagreement with the PMO and most of the rest of his government over whether to help the company. At his press conference, he euphemistically described this monumental screw-up as a communications breakdown. If only he had done more listening and learning! There was “an erosion of trust,” and he was not aware of it, but said he should have been. "I now understand that she saw it differently.”
No one should be surprised that Mr. Trudeau describes the inner workings of his government in the language of therapy-speak. He is a thoroughly modern leader. In Mr. Trudeau’s world there are no arguments, disagreements or fights. Instead, there are “conversations among colleagues" about “how to tackle a challenging issue.” The smooth functioning of his cabinet, he says, depends on “relationships," and if those relationships break down, no progress can be made.
Mr. Trudeau’s press conference on Thursday morning had several objectives. One was to make him look calm and in control. He did this well. In fact, he looked positively jaunty. Another was to reinforce the story that Gerald Butts, his former right-hand man, had delivered to the justice committee the day before. Both men, without ever saying so, managed to leave the impression of Jody Wilson-Raybould as a woman who had a temper tantrum when she didn’t get her way.
Mr. Trudeau’s third objective was to remind Canadians why they’d voted for him in the first place – and why they should do it again. Here he shamelessly invoked the legacy of his father, from whom, he claims, he inherited his passionate commitment to justice. He mentioned the word “leadership” a few too many times. (Hint: If you have to tell people how good a leader you are, you probably aren’t. )
Did the Butts-and-Trudeau show make their problems go away? No. There are still gaping holes in their version of events, and so many contradictions with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version that the two versions can’t possibly be reconciled. A few problems: Why were they so sure that SNC-Lavalin might shed 9,000 jobs if it didn’t get a deferred prosecution agreement? And how can they possibly claim that the PMO’s dispute with Ms. Wilson-Raybould played no part in her demotion?
But now, Canadians can choose between two versions of events, both of which are plausible. (Remember that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version is incomplete because of constraints placed on her by the Prime Minister). In one version, the government just wanted to save jobs for middle-class Canadians because it is compassionate and caring and stands up for the little guy. In the other version, the government was trying to bail out its corporate buddies in Quebec, and Mr. Trudeau’s staff hounded and harassed the then-Justice Minister when she refused to throw the company a lifeline. Then they demoted her for acting on her principles. In one version, Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a a bitter loner who can’t compromise. In the other, she’s a crusading truth-teller.
But there are bigger things on which everyone currently agrees. Everyone agrees that the decision on SNC-Lavalin was Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s alone to make, no matter how hard she was leaned on. Everyone, including her, also agrees that none of the leaning ever rose to the level of criminal behaviour.
There are lots of things we don’t know yet about this story, but I suspect the main damage has already been done. There are no smoking guns, no victims, no fraud, no suitcases full of illegal cash, not even villains – just politicians and their operatives doing what they always do to gain advantage. Mr. Trudeau has already appeased the gods with the sacrifice of his principal secretary, a man he will sorely miss. Other heads may roll. Will Mr. Trudeau’s? Highly unlikely. This story doesn’t make him look scheming or nefarious. It just makes him look dim.
It gives me no pleasure to say so, but after the week’s events I’ve concluded that this is a story not about a moral scandal but about government incompetence. Without fresh revelations, it will gradually fade away and join the sartorial gaffe in India as an unfortunate but non-fatal mishap. So let’s enjoy this moment of government discomfort while it lasts. They certainly deserve it.