The Liberals may have believed for a few moments that they had found a way out of the SNC-Lavalin mess. Instead, the mess got worse.
The opposition wants to know whether Justin Trudeau exerted pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould to go easy on the corruption charges facing the Quebec engineering company. What did the Prime Minister say, and when did he say it?
And the former attorney-general has publicly pleaded with Mr. Trudeau to release her from the attorney-client privilege that has forced her to remain silent.
We are at that stage in this scandal – for this is now certifiably a scandal – when the story seems to get worse for the government every day.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould rose dramatically in the House of Commons on Wednesday to ask that Mr. Trudeau allow her to speak freely about the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
“I understand fully that Canadians want to know the truth, and want transparency,” she said, as Liberal MPs watched grimly. “Privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive, and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth."
That plea to “speak my truth” exploded any Liberal hopes that they could have Ms. Wilson-Raybould testify before the House justice committee next week with attorney-client privilege firmly in place, limiting her ability to compromise the government.
In the wake of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s public statement, Mr. Trudeau must either waive privilege or leave her fettered, discrediting the whole process.
These latest bombshells followed a barrage of opposition questions over Wednesday’s Globe and Mail report that the Prime Minister met with Ms. Wilson-Raybould in September two weeks after the director of public prosecutions decided not to offer SNC-Lavalin an easy exit from fraud and bribery charges, but instead to prosecute.
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer wanted to know who had requested the meeting and what the two had discussed. Here is Mr. Trudeau’s answer:
“This is a file that touches tens of thousands of Canadians right across the country, including 9,000 direct jobs [at SNC-Lavalin]. … Of course we are going to be very careful about how we move forward in protecting those jobs, but we are also going to, at the same time, make sure that we are standing up for the independence of our judicial system.”
If you translated that as other than: “Yes I raised the fact that prosecuting SNC-Lavalin could cost thousands of jobs, but not in a way that undermined the rule of law,” then we see things differently.
First, fissures are beginning to appear in the Liberal caucus. Two MPs – both with a reputation for being renegades, it must be said – voted with the opposition to hold a full public inquiry and to free Ms. Wilson-Raybould from lawyer-client privilege. The CBC reported that Ms. Wilson-Raybould waited two hours on Tuesday while cabinet debated whether to allow her to speak to ministers. That must have been some debate.
Second, the opposition now has an easy way to explain this scandal: Justin Trudeau may have violated the rule of law by pressuring his attorney-general to wave off prosecution of a big Quebec firm on corruption charges. When she refused, Mr. Trudeau demoted her.
Third, Mr. Trudeau has an impossibly difficult decision to make: waive attorney-client privilege for his former attorney-general, as she has now publicly asked him to do, and face the consequences, or keep it in place and face the consequences.
Fourth, the Senate is waiting in the wings. If the House justice committee conspicuously fails to get to the bottom of who-said-what, then the legal-affairs committee of the Red Chamber could take up the matter. This would be a test case for the independent senators appointed by Mr. Trudeau to prove their independence.
Finally, there is the unknown unknown – the shoe waiting to drop, the story waiting to be told, Or, failing that, the drip, drip, drip of information that advances the controversy incrementally, furnishing the opposition with yet another day of accusatory questions that the Prime Minister refuses to directly answer.
This is what a great big scandal looks like. And we’re smack in the middle of it.