Gerald Butts’s calm and reasoned efforts to rebut allegations that he and others tried to interfere with a criminal prosecution were completely undermined on Wednesday by the combative reappearance of Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, who seems to believe he is the real victim in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Mr. Wernick surprised us all when he revealed that in the midst of the debate over SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., he took a call from Kevin Lynch, the company’s chairman, who just happens to be a former clerk of the privy council. Mr. Wernick could not understand why anyone would look upon such a thing as special treatment.
We have passed a tipping point. Wednesday’s testimony was another episode in a political melodrama that will run now until election day in October. SNC-Lavalin has become for the Liberals what the Senate expenses scandal was for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. What we don’t know is whether it will prove equally fatal.
Mr. Butts, who stepped down as principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over this controversy, testified that Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she was attorney-general, misunderstood his innocent efforts to find alternatives to prosecuting SNC-Lavalin for corruption, which could endanger thousands of jobs.
Gerald Butts on the SNC-Lavalin affair: What you missed from Wednesday’s hearings, and what it means
She was being unreasonable in refusing to bring in someone like former former Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin for a separate opinion. And Ms. Wilson-Raybould completely misunderstood why she was being removed from the post of justice minister and attorney-general, Mr. Butts explained. It was all about balancing geographical considerations and matching ministers’ abilities to portfolios, he said.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould remembers things differently, and Jane Philpott, who resigned from cabinet on Monday, sides with her. But for those in search of a plausible defence of the Liberal government’s actions, Mr. Butts offered at least a partial case, although his inability to deal with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s allegation that partisan political calculations were also raised is still a problem.
Then along came Mr. Wernick, waving a thick wad of paper that he said constituted witness intimidation by bots and trolls, to blow everything up again.
Angry, aggrieved, Mr. Wernick was furious that his previous testimony had been described by some observers (including me) as overtly partisan. He had served governments of every kind, he declared. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May responded sweetly that she was sure Mr. Wernick was equally partisan, no matter who was in charge.
Mr. Wernick denied that he ever threatened Ms. Wilson-Raybould over her decision to let the criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin go ahead. He was simply providing context.
Mr. Wernick could not remember the details of certain conversations because he did not wear a wire to meetings, as he put it. But he could remember every word of conversations that advanced his side of the argument. By the time he was finished, Mr. Butts must have been quietly in tears.
Read former Trudeau aide Gerald Butts’s full opening statement from his testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair
The Liberals are left with no good options. Either the justice committee will continue to hear evidence from witnesses in the coming weeks, including an invitation to Ms. Wilson-Raybould to return, or the Liberal majority will limit the damage by shutting the hearings down, which would be like Stephen Harper proroguing Parliament because he had become tired of Question Period.
Either way, the SNC-Lavalin affair is now deeply entrenched in the political agenda. There will be other news, of course. Finance Minister Bill Morneau will bring down a budget on March 19. The slowdown in economic growth is becoming an important issue. The carbon tax goes into effect for recalcitrant provinces on April 1. The renegotiated North American free-trade agreement needs to be ratified. And pipelines, always pipelines.
But all future debates, and the election campaign itself, will be framed by the questions raised by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Did the Prime Minister and his advisers seek to undermine the rule of law by pressing the attorney-general to intervene in a prosecution? What do the resignations of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott from cabinet say about Mr. Trudeau’s leadership? Has he lost the public trust?
On the other side, is this contretemps more important than the government’s achievements in renegotiating NAFTA, in reducing child poverty, in tackling climate change, in efforts at Indigenous reconciliation?
Voters will weigh all this in the balance, and decide.