Cabinet ministers don’t quit in protest one week then ask to speak to their former colleagues at the next cabinet meeting. At least, they didn’t before Tuesday, when Jody Wilson-Raybould showed up.
That was no small surprise. Just the day before, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s right-hand-man, Gerald Butts, had resigned over the SNC-Lavalin affair – not to take the blame, but insisting no one in the PMO had put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to drop the bribery prosecution against the Montreal-based engineering firm. Mr. Butts insisted that he’d defend himself against that allegation – and the subtext was that if Ms. Wilson-Raybould had an allegation to make, he’d fight it.
So the former justice minister’s appearance at cabinet baffled, to say the least. In the House of Commons, she was still sitting in a front-bench, cabinet-minister’s seat. It led to wildfire speculation that she might return to cabinet, that she was back on the team now that Mr. Butts had quit or that there might be some kind of deal to get her to play down the allegations. Why was she at the cabinet meeting? No one would really say.
One thing is clear, however: Mr. Trudeau’s team has now decided this whole affair will not be put in the past until we’ve heard from Ms. Wilson-Raybould, in public.
They either want to hear her make allegations in public so they can try to rebut them, or they want to hear her play them down – although it’s hard to imagine, after she resigned from cabinet, how she could play down the matter.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Liberal MPs on the Commons justice committee decided to invite Ms. Wilson-Raybould to testify, even though they were unwilling to issue an invitation just last week.
Her silence was already doing a whole lot of damage to Mr. Trudeau. The allegation that the PMO put pressure on her is already out there; she quit in apparent protest; the damage to Mr. Trudeau’s reputation is growing.
So far, Ms. Wilson-Raybould has insisted that there is not much she can say about the whole business, because as the former attorney-general and the government’s lawyer, she is bound by solicitor-client privilege.
But now there are many people inside the Liberal government willing to argue that there are lot of things she could say without violating any privilege. She could say whether she felt under pressure, for example, or whether she was asked to intervene.
Just how free to speak she will be remains an open question. The government is still reluctant to give her a blanket release from solicitor-client privilege or cabinet-confidence secrecy. Mr. Trudeau argues that the government has to be careful to avoid unintentional impact on the two court cases involving SNC-Lavalin.
But at this point, Mr. Trudeau’s government isn’t likely to save itself by asking Ms. Wilson-Raybould to testify with one arm tied behind her back – or even by allowing the perception that she cannot speak freely. The new Justice Minister David Lametti has been asked to look into whether Ms. Wilson-Raybould can be released from the privilege – but he might express the opinion that she is free to speak about most of the SNC-Lavalin affair without risking a breach of solicitor-client privilege.
One way or another, this isn’t going away before Canadians see Ms. Wilson-Raybould on their TVs, talking about what happened.
It seems inconceivable that her attendance at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting was arranged so all could agree she’d play ball and pretend nothing happened. She quit the cabinet last week when the PM said that her presence in the cabinet was a sign she had not faced pressure. She can’t credibly put that in the box. Who would believe it now?
But for a week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s stoic silence seemed to make the allegations grow. The Liberals have now decided they can’t deal with them until she speaks in public. What’s not yet clear is whether they will still try to control what she says, or counter it.