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Politics The Liberals’ strategy on the SNC-Lavalin affair is tying them into knots

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on March 18, 2019.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

There must be a plan. You would think that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his PMO and the Liberal Party of Canada have a strategy to put the SNC-Lavalin affair behind them. But it must be a very, very subtle plan that in its middle stages just looks like Liberals twisting themselves into pretzels.

Over the weekend, it seemed the plan was to put the onus on former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott to speak up, to go into the House of Commons under parliamentary immunity and tell all – instead of just hinting.

Liberal MP Judy Sgro called for that last week. Liberal strategists apparently decided she was on to something. Over the weekend, two ministers picked it up and made the same point on Sunday chat shows. Put it on the record, urged Karina Gould, the Democratic Institutions Minister.

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So, of course, you’d expect Mr. Trudeau to agree.

But on Monday, when reporters asked, he dodged the question.

He said Ms. Wilson-Raybould already had an opportunity to give a “full airing” of her story on the record at justice committee hearings. He argued that his government had provided an “unprecedented” waiver to release her from obligations of solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality stemming from the period when Ms. Wilson-Raybould was minister of justice and attorney-general. In short, he suggested Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said it all, or at least everything that matters.

Let’s review. Ms. Wilson-Raybould indicated she still has important information to reveal from the period after she was shuffled from the justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs on Jan. 14 – and that period is not covered by Mr. Trudeau’s waiver. Ms. Philpott, who quit the cabinet March 4, told Maclean’s last week that there is “much more to the story.” On Sunday, members of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet trooped out to the talk shows to challenge Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott to reveal all. But Mr. Trudeau suggested there’s no need for that, because Ms. Wilson-Raybould has had her say.

Huh?

It almost seems like the Liberals are trying to focus attention on unanswered questions, and whether something is being hidden. That, as much as the substance, is what is harming Mr. Trudeau now. The back-and-forth over whether the two former ministers are free to speak, where they might speak now that Liberal MPs shut down the justice committee hearings and if the Liberals are really for it, or against it.

Now, opposition MPs on the Commons ethics committee will move on Tuesday to call Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott as witnesses. After a weekend when Liberal ministers were asking both former ministers to put up or shut up, will the Liberals really block them from testifying?

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Another Liberal, Beaches-East York MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, would have to perform political gymnastics to vote for that. Mr. Erskine-Smith, 34, is the young, Oxford-educated vice-chair of the ethics committee who broke with his party in February to vote for a public inquiry. “The truth, like confidence in our public institutions, depends on a serious commitment to openness and transparency,” he told his constituents in a message at the time.

The Liberal strategy to put this affair in the past just keeps tying them into knots.

Three weeks ago, it appeared Mr. Trudeau’s team was getting a grip on the narrative.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould had delivered bombshell testimony alleging that Mr. Trudeau’s aides and officials participated in a campaign of political pressure aimed at getting her to order a halt to the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin and instead negotiate a settlement calling for a remediation agreement.

But then Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, testified that the only thing the PMO wanted was for Ms. Wilson-Raybould to seek an outside legal opinion because the livelihoods of SNC-Lavalin employees were at stake. It still seemed pretty clear why Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt under pressure, but for many of those inclined to give Mr. Trudeau the benefit of the doubt, it sounded all right.

A week later, however, Liberal MPs were rushing to stop Ms. Wilson-Raybould from testifying. The strategy seems designed to convince people there is something to hide. And with each new twist, Mr. Trudeau’s party seems to tangle themselves up more.

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