Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to reset the political spotlight on the federal budget Thursday, but it was overshadowed by opposition manoeuvres in Parliament and a public appeal from former cabinet minister Jane Philpott to allow Canadians to hear “the whole story” of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Ms. Philpott – who resigned this month as president of the Treasury Board over political interference in the justice system – urged the Prime Minister to waive all cabinet and solicitor-client privileges to permit former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould and other key players to speak freely about the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin criminal prosecution for bribery and fraud.
"My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole truth,” Ms. Philpott told Maclean’s magazine. “If nothing wrong took place, then why don’t we waive privilege on the whole issue and let those who have something to say on it speak their minds and share their stories.”
She complained about “an attempt to shut down the story” and said “there is still a substantial amount of [Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s] story that’s not out there.”
The broadside at Mr. Trudeau’s handling of the matter took the focus off a budget announcement in Mississauga, where he promised additional money from gas taxes for municipalities.
He faced repeated questions from the media on why he won’t grant a sweeping waiver for Ms. Wilson-Raybould so she can talk about what transpired between the time she was shuffled out of the Justice portfolio, in early January, and her resignation from cabinet on Feb. 12.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters he had already granted an “unprecedented waiver” to Ms. Wilson-Raybould so she could provide testimony before the House of Commons justice committee about the political pressure she faced between September and December, 2018, to help SNC-Lavalin out of its legal difficulties.
“The issue was pressure around SNC-Lavalin while she was attorney-general, and she got to speak fully to do that,” he said.
The political controversy has resulted in the resignations of four high-profile members of the government, as well as opposition attempts to disrupt Parliament in order to protest a decision by the Liberal-dominated justice committee to shut down its inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin matter.
Conservative and NDP MPs forced marathon votes on spending estimates Wednesday night that continued through most of Thursday and forced the cancellation of Question Period.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail Wednesday, SNC-Lavalin chief executive Neil Bruce also undermined key assertions of Mr. Trudeau and his staff that the company might relocate its headquarters out of Canada and take 9,000 jobs with it if it were convicted and then barred from bidding on federal contracts for up to 10 years. Mr. Bruce said he never cited the protection of jobs or retention of the Montreal headquarters as reasons why the company should be granted an out-of-court-settlement.
The engineering and construction company, which is facing fraud and bribery charges relating to its business dealings in Libya, had sought to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA). Under such an agreement, it would accept responsibility and relinquish benefits gained from wrongdoing, pay a fine and put in place compliance measures.
The issue has dominated Parliament since The Globe reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a DPA without trial for SNC-Lavalin.
In the fallout, Mr. Trudeau lost Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott, as well as his principal secretary, Gerald Butts. On Monday, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, retired because he said he had lost the “trust and respect" of the opposition parties over his role in the SNC-Lavalin case. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has also launched an inquiry, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has asked the RCMP to investigate possible obstruction of justice.
On Tuesday, Liberal MPs on the justice committee shut down hearings on the matter, preventing Ms. Wilson-Raybould from returning to testify.
Liberal MPs are also expected to use their majority on the House ethics committee next Tuesday to block an attempt by Conservative and NDP members to mount an inquiry and have the former attorney-general testify.
In testimony last month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she faced “consistent and sustained” pressure from Mr. Trudeau and top aides to override federal prosecutors and negotiate a DPA with SNC-Lavalin.
The B.C. MP has said she wanted to return for a second round of testimony to explain what transpired between the time she was moved out of the Justice portfolio and her resignation from cabinet.
She has asked the Prime Minister to give her another waiver from solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality to talk about the conversations with Mr. Trudeau that led to her resignation.
In the Maclean’s interview, Ms. Philpott said she is also keen to have cabinet privilege waived for her as well so she can talk about a meeting with the Prime Minister in which they discussed his plan to move her to Treasury Board and shuffle Ms. Wilson-Raybould out as justice minister and attorney-general. A key topic was the pressure put on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, she said.
“I spoke to the Prime Minister on January the 6th about SNC-Lavalin’s desire to have a DPA,” she said. “I think Canadians might want to know why I would have raised that with the Prime Minister. … Why would I have felt that there was a reason why former minister Wilson-Raybould should not be shuffled?”
Mr. Trudeau had a different interpretation of that meeting, saying it was mostly about Ms. Philpott’s move from Indigenous Services to Treasury Board and his plan to have Ms. Wilson-Raybould take over her portfolio.
“She asked me directly if this was in link to the SNC-Lavalin decision, and I told her, ‘No, it was not,’ ” he said. “She then mentioned it may be a challenge for Jody-Wilson Raybould to take on the role of Indigenous Services.”
Mr. Trudeau said he asked Ms. Philpott “for her help, and she gladly offered" to help convince Ms. Wilson-Raybould to take the position. As a former B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ms. Wilson-Raybould turned down the job because she did not want to oversee the Indian Act.
She was then shuffled to Veterans Affairs on Jan. 14, which she said she believed was related to her refusal to help SNC-Lavalin.
Ms. Philpott did not respond to requests from The Globe to explain the discrepancy between her and Mr. Trudeau’s versions of the Jan. 6 meeting.
In the Maclean’s interview, she praised Ms. Wilson-Raybould for standing firm, despite “bullying or harassment” from the Prime Minister’s Office to override the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to help SNC-Lavalin.
“The former AG didn’t want to override that, and she had her finger in the dike and said no repeatedly," Ms. Philpott said.
Mr. Trudeau said he would not seek to have Ms. Philpott or Ms. Wilson-Raybould ousted from the Liberal caucus – a view shared by some but not all Liberals.
“She is someone I look up to as a mentor,” Toronto MP Julie Dzerowicz said of Ms. Philpott. Charlottetown MP Sean Casey said she was a “significant contributor" to caucus.
But Toronto MP John McKay expressed frustration that two former ministers are hurting the Liberals.
“Members are starting to realize that this has political consequences, and the decisions that have been made by both of them over the last few weeks have hurt members,” he told reporters during a break in the marathon voting.
Veteran Liberal MP Judy Sgro, who is also a former cabinet minister, appeared visibly frustrated by Ms. Philpott’s latest comments and the “innuendo” she said they have created.
“There’s no reason that Jane or Jody cannot go into the House of Commons [under] parliamentary privilege, talk for as long as they want, say anything they want,” she said. “There’s absolutely no reason that the two former ministers can’t do that.”
Rob Walsh, a former House of Commons law clerk, said Ms. Wilson-Raybould could rise in the House on a matter of “personal privilege” to ask to speak under the cover of parliamentary immunity and would not be bound by cabinet solidarity and solicitor-client privilege.
“It may be she could argue that she has tried to appear before the justice committee and been denied an opportunity and feels it is imperative that she be afforded an opportunity to respond to the witnesses who testified after she testified,” he said, although he added that the Speaker may not allow her to go on longer than 20 minutes.
With files from Bill Curry.