You could see what the plan was for Question Period – sort of. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was going to turn back almost every question about the SNC-Lavalin affair by referring to something in Tuesday’s budget. Then, when the Conservatives didn’t ask questions about the budget item, he’d argue the Tories were more concerned with petty politics than the economy or things that really matter to folks.
But it wasn’t exactly the suave turning of the page the Liberals had planned.
For one thing, Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who recently told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Trudeau yelled at her (and later apologized) when she told him she would not run again, quit the Liberal caucus an hour or two before Question Period. For another, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, the two ministers who resigned over the SNC-Lavalin affair, were still sitting at either end of the Liberal benches, saying nothing, and it still seemed awkward.
It wasn’t known why Ms. Caesar-Chavannes decided to sit as an independent; it’s still not clear. But she is an ally of both Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott, so the Conservatives used her departure as an opportunity to brand Mr. Trudeau a “fake feminist.”
There’s been a vein of that criticism ever since Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned – the suggestion that the former attorney-general was bullied by a male Prime Minister and mostly male PMO aides. Hashtags such as #IBelieveHer, associated with the #MeToo movement, were attached to tweets of support for Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
But on Wednesday, the Conservatives brought that out into direct accusations. Two female ministers are gone, and now Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, they said. Two female Conservatives MPs – Candice Bergen and Michelle Rempel – led the charge. Both mentioned that SNC-Lavalin had paid for prostitutes for Saadi Gadhafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“This all started when the good ol’ boys at SNC-Lavalin were caught bribing and spending money on prostitutes, and then the Prime Minister and his good ol’ boys said to them, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it,’” Ms. Bergen said. “However, a woman, the former attorney-general, then said no to the good ol’ boys – and she was promptly fired and silenced.”
Mr. Trudeau had an answer: “We will take no lessons from Conservatives about defending women’s rights in this country." He asserted that the Liberals have put money into equality and accused the Conservatives of being against abortion. His voice rose, pumping up his backbenchers, who stood up and applauded.
“Well," Ms. Bergen retorted, “the Prime Minister is really good at yelling and screaming at women, as the member for Whitby knows."
Before, Mr. Trudeau would have easily rebuffed such attacks. Now, there’s the presence of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott on the Liberal benches, looking down at their phones as Conservative MPs point to them as living proof that the PM is a sexist bully. Both said nothing about it.
As she left Parliament after Question Period, Ms. Philpott declined to say more about the assertion that Mr. Trudeau is a fake feminist. “I don’t want to comment on that today,” she said.
The channel changing hadn’t worked.
Earlier it seemed like it might. The Conservatives had done the full monty on parliamentary protests the day before, walking out on Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget speech. How could they turn up the volume in their protests? The government had a big-spending budget to talk about.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer opened Wednesday’s Question Period by querying not the PM, but the Conservative chair of the Commons ethics committee, Bob Zimmer, who said his committee would launch hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair. But the Liberal majority on the committee will presumably shut that down, too.
By the end, Mr. Trudeau hadn’t really changed the channel.
The chief executive of SNC-Lavalin, Neil Bruce, had told reporters that he never warned his company’s jobs or headquarters would be moved out of Canada if it didn’t get a negotiated settlement to halt the bribery prosecution. But Mr. Trudeau has repeatedly asserted that he asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould to reconsider intervening in the case because he was concerned that 9,000 SNC-Lavalin jobs in Canada might be lost.
Question Period ended with Mr. Trudeau being pressed for answers again – and not about the budget.