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opinion

A public explanation is Mr. Trudeau's only hope of putting the SNC-Lavalin affair behind him.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

The Prime Minister’s closest confidant and former senior aide, Gerry Butts, is about to deliver testimony in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and every word will be put under a microscope. But it’s no longer the main event.

Aides won’t do any more, no matter how close to the Prime Minister. Justin Trudeau has to go out in person, in public, in detail, and give a real explanation of what happened. He has not done that yet. It is his only hope of putting it behind him now.

That’s how Jane Philpott’s resignation from cabinet, on top of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, has changed the nature of this affair.

Eight days ago, this was about principles – important ones, such as protecting prosecutorial independence from political interference. Now, that’s just one theme in a story full of characters and personalities – Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s, Ms. Philpott’s, and especially Mr. Trudeau’s.

Two respected women, both symbolic of the kind of new politics Mr. Trudeau promised in 2015, have both said they have lost faith. Or rather that Mr. Trudeau lost their faith, that he’s not the leader he claimed to be.

Mr. Trudeau’s task is to win that faith back, if not from Ms. Wilson-Raybould or Ms. Philpott, from the many people who found them to be the compelling figures in this drama. He can only do that in person. It’s about his character.

Mr. Butts’s testimony at the Commons justice committee on Wednesday afternoon will still be carefully watched. A surprising street-level interest has developed. And Mr. Trudeau’s close friend and former principal secretary is a fascinating character in his own right – a brilliant, confident, powerful but backstage alter-ego to the PM.

He presumably has a different story to tell – that less pressure was applied than Ms. Wilson-Raybould makes out, for example, or that the jobs of innocent folks, not politics, was the focus. Presumably, his goal when he sent a letter last week asking to testify was to persuade Canadians that Mr. Trudeau’s PMO had not crossed the line into improper interference in a criminal prosecution. Maybe it still will be. But it’s not just about the Shawcross doctrine now. And Mr. Butts cannot restore faith in Mr. Trudeau. If it can be done, it has to be done in person. Canadians want to hear from the Prime Minister.

On Monday night, after Ms. Philpott resigned, Mr. Trudeau suggested a change in approach was coming. Remember, he has said little to counter Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s long, detailed account to the justice committee. He said the concerns of the kind raised in the SNC-Lavalin affair have to be taken seriously and assured people he was taking them seriously. The new message is, "I’m listening.” It didn’t sound that way before.

At first, he said a report in The Globe and Mail that PMO staffers pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to halt the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated settlement was “false.” When Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet over the affair, he said he was disappointed. The thing is, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has told the country she is disappointed with him. And Ms. Philpott has, too.

Above all, he did not say much. For each startling revelation, he had a controlled sound bite, but that’s all. After Ms. Philpott quit, he was an hour late to take the stage at a Liberal rally on Monday night, and then he hit his mark to deliver a few brief scripted lines. On Tuesday, he cancelled a trip to Saskatchewan to hunker down in Ottawa. The PM has no public events on his itinerary on Wednesday, when Mr. Butts speaks to the justice committee.

We all know why: He was trying to keep a lid on it. But it was a long way from that guy who promised to do politics differently. And two former cabinet ministers have just suggested he’s a long way from that guy, too.

What can he do now? The thing he should have done from the beginning: talk about it, explain it, address what happened and why.

An apology won’t do it. Maybe that Monday night assertion that he is taking concerns seriously is a hint that he will admit he made mistakes, or that he should have listened more, but it will have to come on top of a more serious accounting. At this point, Canadians feel they are owed an explanation, from the Prime Minister himself.