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Politics Liberal bid to play down election impact of ethics report on SNC-Lavalin working reasonably well – for now

In the couple of days following last week’s release of Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s report on the SNC-Lavalin affair, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals seemed rather sanguine, considering the circumstances.

Sources in the senior ranks of their party couldn’t really deny it was bad that, about two months before a federal election, the Prime Minister had been found to have broken conflict-of-interest rules because of pressure his office exerted on then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould on the engineering company’s behalf. Likewise, new details that cast their government in a negative light. Not to mention the impossibility of explaining why, when The Globe and Mail first reported actions now documented by an Officer of Parliament, Mr. Trudeau categorically denied they happened.

But there was at least one reason they felt less on the ropes than at the height of the scandal last winter: a sense of control.

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The Liberal strategy has been to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strike a relatively relaxed demeanour in a sunny outdoor setting to keep the focus on issues other than the ethics report.

ANDREJ IVANOV/Reuters

Back then, not having expected backroom machinations around a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin to come to light, they didn’t know what had hit them; sustaining friendly fire from two erstwhile senior members of their cabinet in Ms. Wilson-Raybould and her ally Jane Philpott, they didn’t know what damaging revelations would hit them next.

This time, they knew Mr. Dion’s report was coming, they had a pretty good idea what was in it, and his findings were laid out in full. So they were able to map out a response strategy aimed at minimizing the report’s impact and getting the focus back on things they would rather talk about by the time the campaign starts.

Then, on Friday afternoon, Ms. Wilson-Raybould informed media that – contrary to the impression she had given the previous day – the RCMP had reached out to her at one point to discuss the affair. And in the process, she made it more difficult for the Liberals to feel even relative comfort this time around.

It’s very far from clear that the Mounties’ apparent interest will amount to anything more substantive. While telling media it is “examining this matter carefully” and “will take appropriate actions as required,” the national police force does not appear to have launched a formal investigation. And Ms. Wilson-Raybould has repeatedly said publicly that she does not think the Prime Minister or his staff did anything criminal.

But the mere prospect of police getting involved has to be enough to make Liberals wonder, at some level, whether any damage control at this point will prove enough.

From a political perspective, if not a public-interest one, they probably executed the early stages of responding to the Ethics Commissioner’s report as well as possible – or at least much better than their crisis management during the scandal’s first round.

Confusing as Mr. Trudeau’s current line that he accepts “full responsibility” for Mr. Dion’s findings and disagrees with some of his conclusions may be, that message seems to have been crafted with an eye toward breathing less life into the scandal than either a long-awaited apology or outright defiance might have. And the visuals, the Prime Minister striking a relatively relaxed demeanour in a sunny outdoor setting, were consistent with how the Liberals like to present him.

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From this point, their plan seems to involve having Mr. Trudeau continue answering questions about the affair (however unsatisfactorily) rather than putting him inside a bubble, in hope of exhausting reporters’ and others’ interest. Then they’ll try to drive each day’s agenda, either through policy announcements of their own or attacks on their opponents, even more than they otherwise might heading into a national campaign.

But if Mr. Dion’s report isn’t the last big pre-election news we’ll have on this file, whatever planning the Liberals have done to date might go out the window.

And so, too, might a second, related cause for comfort Liberals were quietly citing last week: the idea that at this point, SNC-Lavalin’s impact on perceptions of Mr. Trudeau is already baked in.

Perhaps, as that theory holds, there is nothing so striking in Mr. Dion’s report – compared with what was known previously – for voters who stuck with Mr. Trudeau thus far to now turn against him. But would the same be true with a new angle, even closer to election day, that involved police?

The Liberals’ imperative this campaign, at least as much as preventing would-be supporters from splintering to other parties, is ensuring high turnout among non-habitual voters – especially younger voters – who came out in droves for them last time. If those people are hearing about scandal during the campaign, through the sort of stunning twist that breaks through even to people who don’t follow partisan politics closely, it will be harder to mobilize them.

Other than maybe preparing a few lines in case of further news of police interest, Mr. Trudeau and his campaign team have little choice at the moment but to push that possibility as far back in their heads as they can for now, as they try to push forward with their campaign strategy.

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But the mere prospect of police getting involved is a reminder of how the Liberals ceded full control of this file long ago, back when they were sowing the seeds by wading into a criminal prosecution they’d have been better not to try to control at all.​

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