When the Liberal Party members of the House justice committee used their majority to shut down hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair on Tuesday, they said they did so based on the belief that the hearings had achieved their objective.
“Canadians now have the necessary information to arrive at a conclusion," they wrote in a letter to the committee chair, fellow Liberal MP Anthony Housefather.
We agree. Canadians can reach a conclusion. And the conclusion, based on the information made public so far, is that the Trudeau government inappropriately tried to interfere with the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on charges of bribery and fraud.
There is no evidence anything illegal occurred – Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney-general at the centre of the story, said so herself in her testimony to the committee.
But the Trudeau government has not made a convincing case in its defence of the allegation made by Ms. Wilson-Raybould that she faced “veiled threats" and ”consistent and sustained” pressure to give SNC-Lavalin what it had repeatedly lobbied the government for – a deferred prosecution agreement that would amount to an admission of wrongdoing related to business it did in Libya more than a decade ago, but exempt it from facing trial on criminal charges.
She says the pressure came in various forms from Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s former principal secretary, Michael Wernick, the former Clerk of the Privy Council, Ben Chin, the chief of staff to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, other senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould also says these emissaries twice brought up the Liberal Party’s electoral fortunes as they pleaded with her to help them, as Mr. Trudeau himself allegedly put it to her, “find a solution.”
Mr. Trudeau and his government officials have countered that their attempts to discuss the issue with Ms. Wilson-Raybould were merely the usual give-and-take of politics.
They also say their concerns were not political but motivated by the fear that, if SNC-Lavalin were to face charges and be convicted, under federal policy it would be banned from doing business with Ottawa for 10 years, and it might move its head office or lay off its 9,000 Canadian employees.
Basically, it was all a misunderstanding, according to Mr. Housefather, the Liberal chair of the justice committee. He argued in newspaper op-ed this week that any confusion was caused by the fact the rules about a government discussing prosecutions with its attorney-general aren’t clear. “It is hard to determine if behaviour is ethical when rules are ambiguous,” he wrote.
That’s the government’s defence. It doesn’t bear scrutiny.
The company’s chief executive officer said this week that SNC-Lavalin, as part of its intense campaign of lobbying the federal government, never cited job losses or threatened to move if it didn’t get a DPA.
As well, it is self-serving to describe the rules around attorneys-general as ambiguous. They may be fuzzy to the Liberals, but for the rest of the world it is ironclad that politicians must not put pressure on an attorney-general or otherwise stick their noses into a criminal prosecution.
There is the fact that Mr. Butts and Mr. Wernick resigned in the wake of the allegations of political interference. If no one did anything wrong, why would that be necessary?
Then there is the fact that Mr. Trudeau demoted Ms. Wilson-Raybould to Veterans Affairs in January, before the allegations of political pressure came to light. Mr. Trudeau insists that this wouldn’t have happened if Scott Brison hadn’t resigned as president of the Treasury Board, but his claim that this single event caused a domino effect that led to the necessity of demoting Ms. Wilson-Raybould isn’t credible. His hand was not forced.
Finally, there’s the fact the government shut down the hearings this week at a point where it believes it can still argue that the affair amounts to nothing more than reasonable people disagreeing about what constitutes political pressure.
In doing so, the Liberals are refusing to let Ms. Wilson-Raybould testify about what happened when she was demoted and then subsequently resigned. If it has nothing to hide, the government should reopen the hearings. It should not get to decide unilaterally that the public has heard enough, and that it is time to move on.