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Politics The Liberals’ Wilson-Raybould hearings won’t reassure Canadians

Veterans Affairs Minister Jodie Wilson-Raybould addresses the media following a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ont., on Jan. 14, 2019.

The Canadian Press

It seems fairly clear now from the Prime Minister’s own words that he and his former justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, disagree on what happened in discussions about the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said nothing in public. Yet Liberal MPs on the justice committee aren’t interested in inviting her to testify.

Oh, of course – of course – the Liberal MPs think that this whole business is important, the people are concerned, and they have to be reassured. They kept using that word − reassured.

But Ms. Wilson-Raybould? They insisted she cannot appear. As the former attorney-general, she is bound by solicitor-client privilege, and can’t talk about her legal discussions in government. There’s also the question of sub judice, the principle of not interfering in legal cases before the courts.

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Funny that those same Liberal MPs proposed that the committee hear from David Lametti, the current Justice Minister, who must be bound by solicitor-client privilege and the sub judice principle as the current Attorney-General of Canada.

It was pretty clear what was going on. The Liberals didn’t want to refuse to hold hearings on the affair – that would be politically embarrassing. They just want to guide the hearings down a cul-de-sac.

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So the Liberal MPs proposed hearings on the legal issues involved, and to hear from three witnesses, two senior bureaucrats and Mr. Lametti, who wasn’t even in cabinet when the whole affair took place. That’s an agenda to put Canadians to sleep. And so far, the committee won’t hear anyone who was an actual witness – someone involved in discussions between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister’s Office, such as the PM’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, or senior adviser, Mathieu Bouchard.

Real witnesses are key because the question is whether Ms. Wilson-Raybould was pressed by the PMO to direct the public prosecution service to abandon the bribery case against SNC-Lavalin, and instead strike a remediation agreement – essentially a fine and a promise of good behaviour. There were discussions between the PMO and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. The question is whether those discussions crossed a line and whether PMO staffers indicated what they wanted her to do.

On Monday, Mr. Trudeau suggested that the public could tell that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had not felt pressure because she was still in the cabinet – and that she had “confirmed” a past conversation in which Mr. Trudeau told her that all decisions on prosecutions were hers. On Tuesday, Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet.

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The PM’s own statements suggest that Ms. Wilson-Raybould didn’t complain about pressure before, but changed her tune with her resignation.

But we don’t know what she said over recent months to people in the Prime Minister’s inner circle. Perhaps she viewed those conversations with the PMO in a different light after she was demoted to the Veterans Affairs portfolio on Jan. 14.

Surely, she can say some things now about these events without fatal damage to the government or the case against SNC-Lavalin. So can the PM’s aides.

It’s pretty clear that the Liberals don’t want to air all that dirty laundry in public. Even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition of interfering with the prosecution, it’s not likely to be pretty. Better to stall. And to accuse the opposition of partisan games.

In fact, the Liberals went into Wednesday’s meeting of the justice committee insisting that they were being reasonable and the opposition was just trying to score partisan points. At times, the Conservatives seemed to be trying to make that point, too. They brought in their most baldly partisan MP, Pierre Poilievre, who made theatrical speeches and said “cover-up” as often as possible. Luckily for them, New Democratic MP Nathan Cullen stayed reasonable, and made the obvious point that the committee can’t look into the affair without hearing from the people involved.

Parliamentary committees aren’t the best forum for an impartial investigation. Back in the days of the sponsorship scandal, the Commons law clerk, Rob Walsh, expressed the view that they aren’t the best tool to determine “who did what to whom behind which barn.” But he also noted that they have the power to do something important: to get witnesses to put their views on the record, quickly. Until that happens in this case, the public isn’t going to be reassured.

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