If, in some distant future, the Wizards of Oz behind the curtain of the Trudeau government decide to teach a course in Crisis Management 101, we’d urge you to enroll. Make sure you go early and get a seat at the front. Listen carefully. Take copious notes. Go over them at home with a highlighter, so you’ll never forget the key takeaways. Study what they did, and then do the opposite.
For the last two weeks, the Liberal government has been eating itself alive. It’s been a nose-to-tail dining experience, with all dishes made from locally sourced Prime Minister’s Office ingredients, and everything slaughtered on the premises. Sometimes the government has consumed itself behind closed doors; on other days, it has dined al fresco, out in public, on the table d’hôte of its own political body.
It’s been the Prime Minister’s take on the 100 Mile Diet – with the radius shortened to 100 feet.
Ever since The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould last year came under pressure from senior members of the PMO to defer the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on corruption charges, the Trudeau government has struggled to explain itself.
The struggle is real, and it continues.
On Thursday, Canada’s top bureaucrat, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, appeared before the House of Commons justice committee.
On one level, Mr. Wernick’s appearance was a good and necessary thing. He offered more evidence of meetings of various senior officials with Ms. Wilson-Raybould on the SNC-Lavalin file. This is the sort of information Canadians, their elected officials and the Ethics Commissioner – who is also investigating – need to decide whether anyone in the Trudeau government broke the law or acted unethically.
However, Mr. Wernick didn’t just go to committee to answer questions and lay out his version of the facts. Instead, he surprised by using his appearance to deliver a remarkably spirited defence of the government – one far more full-throated, even partisan, than anything offered by anyone in government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
This is troubling, because the Clerk is not a political staffer. His job is to serve the government of the day to the best of his abilities as a non-partisan civil servant. It was right to call him to committee to answer questions about his recollection of who at the most senior levels of government said and did what in relation to the SNC-Lavalin case, and when they did it. But he went well beyond that.
As part of his defence of the government, he said The Globe’s original reporting “contains errors, unfounded speculation and, in some cases, is simply defamatory."
We do not believe that to be the case. If it were, the government and the Prime Minister would not have spent the last two weeks struggling to explain what happened, and offering a story line that has evolved almost daily. Nor would Ms. Wilson-Raybould have resigned from cabinet only hours after Mr. Trudeau said that her continued presence proved nothing was amiss.
And Mr. Wernick’s testimony on Thursday confirmed aspects of the Globe story. “I predict,” he told parliamentarians, “the former attorney-general will express concern to this committee about three events.”
The first, he said, was a Sept. 17 meeting between the PM and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. “The second,” he said, “is a conversation between the Prime Minister’s Office staff and her former chief of staff when she was minister of justice on Dec. 18. And the third is a conversation that I had with her in the afternoon of Dec. 19.” All three were about SNC-Lavalin.
On Sept. 4, the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada had informed the company that she would be proceeding with the criminal case against it, and would not be considering a deferred prosecution agreement. The attorney-general had the power to override that decision.
Mr. Wernick insisted on Thursday that, at these three meetings, nobody put undue pressure on her to override the prosecutor. But he predicted that, when she tells her side of the story, she may recollect those conversations in a less favourable light.
Two weeks ago, when this affair first became public, it was clear there was only one way it could end: with everyone revealing what they know, and with Ms. Wilson-Raybould speaking fully and freely. She is scheduled to testify at the justice committee next week. It cannot come soon enough.