At Thursday morning’s news conference, an unrepentant Justin Trudeau described the political crisis that has consumed his government as a failure to communicate. It was not. This crisis is about his failure to lead. And the news conference offered further proof of that failure.
In his prepared remarks, and in answer to questions from reporters, the Prime Minister confirmed every allegation levelled against his government in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
His attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, told him in September that she supported the decision of the director of public prosecutions to proceed with corruption charges against the engineering firm.
Rather than accept the attorney-general’s decision, the Prime Minister asked her to revisit it, citing potential job losses if the Quebec-based company were convicted. He reminded her that he was a Quebec MP, bringing partisan political considerations into what should have been purely a matter of law.
In the months that followed, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged that his staff continued to press the issue, not willing to accept that Ms. Wilson-Raybould had already made up her mind and not realizing that she resented the pressure she was being put under.
This led, he said, “to an erosion of trust” between his attorney-general and his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, which led in turn to her resignation, to Mr. Butts’s resignation and to former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott’s resignation in solidarity with Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Mr. Trudeau’s explanation makes perfect sense. But it’s also a crock.
It makes sense, because the Prime Minister’s accounting of events fits with the testimony before the justice committee of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick and Mr. Butts.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould thought the decision to prosecute SNC-Lavalin was final; Mr. Trudeau and his team thought nothing was final. She was worried about protecting the rule of law; they were worried about job losses and the fortunes of the Liberal Party. She thought she was pulled from her job as attorney-general because she would not bend on SNC-Lavalin; they insisted this wasn’t true, leading to the spate of resignations.
A failure to communicate leading to an erosion of trust. Sure. But still a crock.
It’s a crock because Mr. Trudeau assumes no responsibility for a crisis that is entirely his fault. A good leader would be appalled that he had created a work environment so dysfunctional that a critical situation spun completely out of control without his even being aware of it.
It’s a crock because the Prime Minister tacitly admitted at the news conference that he was willing to let economic and partisan political considerations influence the SNC-Lavalin prosecution – a blatant violation of the rule of law.
And it’s a crock because Mr. Trudeau’s arrogance masquerading as humility throughout the news conference was so unconvincing. His unwillingness to apologize. His relentless use of the passive voice – “there were already many decisions that had been made,” “there were conversations that were experienced differently” – to avoid taking direct responsibility. His promise to bring in outside consultants to review the situation. (Every bad manager responds to failure with a flow chart.)
But at least now we know the truth. Fundamentally, Justin Trudeau accepts no responsibility for the cascading disasters that created this crisis on his watch. He and his advisers made faulty assumptions. He and his advisers misunderstood what his attorney-general was telling them. He and his advisers injected partisan politics and economic concerns into the rule of law. He and his advisers were gobsmacked when ministers began resigning in protest.
We should talk as well about how these resignations reflect this Prime Minister’s signal failure to respect the concerns of women in his cabinet, about how the resignation of an Indigenous cabinet minister reflects the broader failure of this government’s efforts at Indigenous reconciliation.
But this was mostly a failure by a Prime Minister to lead.
Mr. Trudeau assures us he has learned a lesson from that failure. The rest of us have learned a lesson, too.