The Liberal strategy to put the SNC-Lavalin affair behind them is going exactly according to plan. Unfortunately for the Liberals, it is Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s plan.
This time, the strategists behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thought it would be a good idea to threaten a libel lawsuit against the Conservative Leader, apparently because the Liberals were concerned a slow Sunday might go by without mention of the story that has been dogging them for months.
At this point, you have to wonder if even Mr. Scheer is tired of the whole SNC-Lavalin business, and would prefer to spend more time attacking carbon taxes, or something – and is cursing the PMO for relentlessly pulling him back in, time and time again.
Remember how, less than a week ago, Mr. Trudeau expelled former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus, declaring that the party had to be united to move forward, and move on?
Obviously, the plan was supposed to be to stop talking about the SNC-Lavalin affair. So the thing to avoid was providing a pretext for everyone to keep talking about the SNC-Lavalin affair. Like having your lawyer send a letter to your opponent threatening him over what he said about the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Now, to be fair, the lawyer for Mr. Trudeau, the estimable Julian Porter, Q.C., sent his letter on March 31, a full two days before Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were given the heave-ho as part of Operation Reboot 4.0.
But by then, just about everyone could see it coming, and anyway, the Liberals had been trying to shut down talk of the SNC-Lavalin affair for weeks. So why ask your lawyer to send a letter to your chief opponent, and tell no one so that your opponent can stash it in a drawer for a rainy day?
Most people would be aghast to receive a lawyers’ letter threatening a libel suit, of course. But if you are the Leader of the Opposition, getting a libel notice in an election year can be very good news.
Mr. Scheer can be pretty confident that no matter the eventual outcome, he can probably live with it if he is living at 24 Sussex Drive and going to work in the Prime Minister’s Office, and he can probably expect the Conservative Party of Canada to pay the damages if he is not.
In the meantime, he was able to call a news conference on a Sunday to both allege that the PM is trying to intimidate him into quieting his criticism – which fits neatly with a lot of the criticism in the SNC-Lavalin affair – and repeat a lot of those criticisms, in a gloating tone, on TV.
Mr. Trudeau, of course, has legal rights like anyone else, so he’s entitled to sue if he’s been wrongly defamed. Mr. Porter warned, among other things, that assertions Mr. Scheer made in a March 29 media statement could be taken as allegations that Mr. Trudeau was involved in a crime.
And although that statement and allegations of libel are a matter for the courts, it is certainly true that, in general, some of Mr. Scheer’s insinuations have been over the top.
Some were cleverly so. Mr. Scheer referred to the SNC-Lavalin affair as a Liberal corruption scandal, which was true in that it involved both allegations of inappropriate actions by Liberals and the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on corruption charges. But there has never been any serious allegation that the Liberals were involved in corruption.
The actual allegation is that Mr. Trudeau’s aides and officials interfered with prosecutorial independence by putting pressure on the former attorney-general, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, to order prosecutors to halt the prosecution and reach a negotiated settlement, called a remediation agreement.
Mr. Scheer has, for example, referred to SNC-Lavalin as Mr. Trudeau’s friends, but there isn’t any serious allegation that he acted to help a friend.
But some of that, at least, was rhetoric to be judged in the court of public opinion. Or not, if you judge that the best option is to stop talking about it. Sending a lawyer’s letter was a slow pitch for Mr. Scheer to swing at.
After Mr. Scheer did just that on Sunday, the response from the PMO was a statement that Mr. Scheer keeps talking about the SNC-Lavalin affair, rather than the economy, or infrastructure, or climate change. But the Liberals keep bringing it up.