Gerald Butts hopes to bring clarity to the confusion surrounding the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. But he is more likely to make a bad situation worse.
In his note to justice committee chair Anthony Housefather, Mr. Butts offered to provide information on the events that caused the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould from cabinet and his own subsequent resignation as principal secretary to Justin Trudeau.
I have known Gerry Butts since he was an aide to then-opposition leader Dalton McGuinty at Queen’s Park back in the late 1990s. He is principled and passionate in his convictions.
Like Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, who testified that no inappropriate pressure had been wielded against Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Butts doubtless believes that he and other advisers to the Prime Minister, and even Mr. Trudeau himself, acted in the public interest by trying to have the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin deferred. They were trying to save thousands of jobs, protect the pensions of thousands of others and keep a linchpin of the Quebec economy intact and headquartered in Montreal.
As for aide Mathieu Bouchard allegedly saying that “We can have the best policy in the world, but we need to be re-elected” – well, that’s politics.
But Mr. Wernick has already presented the government’s side of the argument (though not the “that’s politics” part) to the committee. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has provided hers. Most people consider her version of events, supported by the copious notes she had taken when those events occurred, more convincing.
And that version states that Mr. Trudeau and his senior advisers pressed the then-attorney-general to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a clear abuse of the rule of law. She refused and was removed as attorney-general shortly thereafter. It’s as simple, and as damning, as that.
In the absence of doing the right thing – calling an election to let the people decide this issue – the smart thing for the Liberals is to do nothing that will prolong the agony of this scandal. Fresh testimony, even if it bolsters their case, will only drag things on, increasing the risk that Mr. Trudeau himself might be forced to testify, requiring him to do something he has refused to do for three straight weeks: respond to a direct question with a direct answer.
On the weekend, Ms. Wilson-Raybould told Postmedia that she hoped to run in the next election as a Liberal. To keep caucus united, Mr. Trudeau may have no choice but to let her, even though it makes him look terribly weak as a leader – unable to expel from caucus an MP who threatens his very future.
But on the other hand, if there is a path to unity for the Liberal Party, it lies through reconciliation with the former cabinet minister. In the next election, whenever it is called, Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Wilson-Raybould will need to campaign together in Vancouver-Granville, however painful it might be for both of them.
So barring fresh revelations – and this scandal has had its share – Mr. Butts will say his piece, Mr. Wernick and Nathalie Drouin, the deputy attorney-general, will return to clarify a few disputed points, and the Liberals will use their majority to put an end to things. Ms. Wilson-Raybould will not get to testify about conversations with the Prime Minister while she was at Veterans Affairs and the Prime Minister will not testify himself.
Unless the Senate takes up the matter – and as yet there is little sign of an appetite for that – this scandal will blend with the tabling of the budget, the slowing economy, the effort to ratify the new North American trade agreement, the fight with Ontario and other provinces over the carbon tax and the debate over pipelines that don’t get built in the mix of issues that will define the Liberals, for good and for ill, on election day.
Which is not to say that the SNC-Lavalin scandal was merely a passing squall. Anything but. It has marked Justin Trudeau. He used to be seen as a devoted feminist who preferred to consult rather than dictate and as committed to Indigenous reconciliation. He will never be fully seen that way again.