It was pretty clear what was going on at the Commons ethics committee: Liberal MPs, or most of them, wanted nothing more than to keep the SNC-Lavalin affair off the front pages. They didn’t want to argue their side, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s disagreements with the conclusions of the Ethics Commissioner. They were there to shut it down.
That was made all the more obvious by the arguments of the one Liberal MP, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who broke ranks with his party to support a Conservative motion to have Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion testify on his lengthy report.
Why? Because Mr. Erskine-Smith voted to hear Mr. Dion precisely so he could press the Ethics Commissioner on his faulty conclusions. The parts that Mr. Erskine-Smith thinks the Ethics Commissioner got wrong are very similar to the disagreements Mr. Trudeau has with Mr. Dion.
If the Liberals wanted to argue Mr. Trudeau’s case – notably, that the PM was motivated by public concerns, not to feather his own bed – they could have done as Mr. Erskine-Smith suggested, and questioned the Ethics Commissioner on his findings, and debated the matter in committee. You’d think that would be important: Mr. Trudeau keeps saying he had the right intentions.
But no. The Liberals didn’t want that noise. They were governed by a political law about news cycles, and the notion that the longer your scandal stays in them, the worse it is for you. They don’t want more questions. So five Liberal MPs voted against the Ethics Commissioner appearing before the ethics committee.
Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, a veteran political operative substituted onto the committee to be the spokesman for the dirty job, complained that the opposition’s behaviour showed they were there to play “abject partisan games.” Clearly, the Liberals had planned to reply with their own partisan game – shutting the thing down.
Of course, Mr. Erskine-Smith’s Liberal colleagues were probably right that having Mr. Dion testify would have been a political mess. Mr. Erskine-Smith’s points are complex, and rest on legalities, and aren’t so easy to explain. And in the end, they don’t sound good for Mr. Trudeau, either.
Mr. Erskine-Smith, after all, believes after reading Mr. Dion’s report that Mr. Trudeau’s PMO clearly did something wrong – that it improperly interfered in a criminal prosecution, inappropriately put pressure on then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for a negotiated agreement and breached the quasi-constitutional Shawcross Doctrine that governs contacts between the attorney-general and their colleagues in cabinet.
That’s not good.
Where Mr. Erskine-Smith disagrees with Mr. Dion is his finding that the PM was in a conflict of interest. The MP for Beaches-East York is a thoughtful, Oxford-educated lawyer, and he argues that the Ethics Commissioner misinterpreted his own statute. The PM wasn’t pressing Ms. Wilson-Raybould to defer a bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin to enrich himself, but because he was concerned about the impact on jobs, pensions and the economy.
Now, it’s hard to know what was actually in Mr. Trudeau’s intentions. Mr. Dion found that the PMO improperly raised political concerns with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. But, as Mr. Erskine-Smith noted, political concerns aren’t always separate from public interest: The Oshawa MP that has expressed concern about the loss of jobs at the local GM plant isn’t in a conflict of interest.
There is a political point about Mr. Trudeau’s intentions, too. The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he was concerned about the loss of 9,000 SNC-Lavalin jobs in Canada. On Wednesday, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre repeatedly argued there was no evidence jobs were at risk, noting no studies were done and that SNC’s former CEO said the company never warned it would lay off thousands or move its head office.
But certainly it is not odd that a prime minister would worry about the health of a major Canadian company, and that its troubles could hurt its employees. Two successive Quebec premiers, from different parties, expressed concern.
If Mr. Trudeau really wanted to defend his intentions, he might have asked his MPs to vote like Mr. Erskine-Smith.
But that’s not really the Liberal goal. Hearing Mr. Dion wasn’t going to add anything to the findings of his report, but it would allow for another airing of the affair, and the fact-findings that detail a long effort to help the company avoid a criminal prosecution. Better to just end it, take the lumps, and get it out of the news cycle.