Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he doesn’t agree with Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s conclusion that he broke the rules in pressuring the former attorney-general over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. But he nevertheless accepts the commissioner’s report, and takes full responsibility for what happened – which, by the way, was just him sticking up for Canadians’ jobs.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on to some other things laid bare in the commissioner’s 58-page report.
Government scandals tend to fall into one of two categories: corruption or incompetence. The SNC-Lavalin case features repeated intimations of the former – after all, corruption-related charges against the company are what triggered the starter pistol. And in its quest to avoid those charges, SNC-Lavalin was given privileged and regular access to the most senior levels of the Trudeau government, thanks to the kind assistance of the summa cum laude honour role of the Canadian Establishment, including a former clerk of the privy council, former Supreme Court justices and the chairman of the board of the Bank of Montreal.
Someone needs to tally up how many current and future Order of Canada pin-wearers got in on this bit of business.
Yet for all that, what’s clearest in the affair is not the possibility of hidden corruption, but the obvious and glaring incompetence. Key members of the Trudeau government, ably assisted by their top-of-the-Rolodex contacts, made repeated attempts to achieve their boss’s desired outcome, namely getting SNC-Lavalin off the hook. Yet they failed to do so, and failed spectacularly.
They failed because they did not understand the law – neither the long-standing rules of prosecutorial independence nor the limitations of their own newly passed bill, clumsily crafted for the purpose of helping SNC-Lavalin.
They failed because they did not appreciate the reasons of the then-attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, nor did they read the obvious signs that pestering her, just one more time, would not change her mind.
They failed because, being so used to treating cabinet members like spokesmodels who will stand, sit, roll over and read scripts on command, they did not realize that attorney-general is the one cabinet job where independence is legally required. Mr. Trudeau put Ms. Wilson-Raybould into that role; neither he nor his team seem to have understood that they could not direct her, nor could they bypass her, as they would any other minister who declined to take dictation.
They didn’t understand that the Prime Minister’s Office cannot choose who will and who will not be prosecuted.
And, perhaps most shocking of all, the handful of people running the show apparently never stopped to ask: Why? Why are we working so hard to get SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement? That lack of reflection is detailed in one of the most arresting sections of Mr. Dion’s report.
Since this newspaper first broke the story back in February, Mr. Trudeau’s constant refrain has been that, whatever was done, it was in the name of looking out for Canadian workers. As he put it on Thursday, “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs, because that’s my job – to make sure Canadians and communities and pensioners and families across the country are supported.”
And when Mr. Dion interviewed Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the latter said that he was one of those who in 2018 encouraged Ms. Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case, because he was concerned that a conviction could have serious consequences for jobs, pensioners and the economy.
But how did the Trudeau government know what those consequences might be? “When asked if he, or his office, had undertaken a study or analysis of the economic impacts" of an SNC-Lavalin prosecution, "Mr. Morneau testified that none had been conducted.”
Instead, for Mr. Trudeau’s subordinates and perhaps for the PM himself, the more their desired goal escaped their reach, the more they stretched – ethics, propriety, good sense – to grasp it. It was what the boss wanted.
All of which leaves the government’s brain trust looking like something less than backroom masterminds. Instead of a symphony conductor deftly directing the levers of power, what’s on record is more like a marching band that could never get itself into tune, with its players compensating for a lack of sheet music by simply blowing harder.