This wasn’t the Clerk of the Privy Council making a threat. Michael Wernick was, almost sheepishly, warning Jody Wilson-Raybould about someone else. It was Justin Trudeau who wanted to get his way.
Now that we have seen everything that was said in a Dec. 19 phone call between the head of the civil service and the former attorney-general – and heard the tone of their voices in a recording – the conversation is coloured differently. That matters.
If anything, the full transcript of the call outlines clearly what the Prime Minister wanted, and that he was in a mood to get what he wanted – at least if Mr. Wernick described it accurately.
Mr. Trudeau wanted to be able to say that he’d done everything to try to prevent SNC-Lavalin – a “signature company” – from leaving the country or cutting jobs, according to Mr. Wernick. And that meant striking a negotiated deal, called a deferred prosecution agreement, or DPA, instead of prosecuting the company for bribery.
And Mr. Wernick kept repeating that he thought the PM was going to find a way to do it, one way or another.
That’s bad news in this transcript for Mr. Trudeau: Mr. Wernick sure makes him sound like the heavy, like a Prime Minister who has decided what should be done, and who expects it to be done. And you can certainly see how Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt there was an “or else” hanging in the air.
There’s another key point about the conversation: Mr. Wernick really did not understand the warnings that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was giving him about political interference.
Yes, he understood that Ms. Wilson-Raybould believed that offering SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement would be perceived as political interference. What he didn’t seem to understand was that she was warning him that the very conversation they were having was political interference – that all of the calls and meetings with the PM and his aides were.
Mr. Wernick told Ms. Wilson-Raybould that the PM didn’t want to do anything inappropriate, or to interfere – but the Clerk didn’t comprehend that the attorney-general was telling him that that was already happening.
Let’s remember what this is all about: it’s the allegation that Mr. Trudeau and several of his aides and officials interfered in a criminal prosecution by putting pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to order prosecutors to halt the bribery prosecution and instead negotiate a DPA.
The director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, had decided that would not be appropriate. Ms. Wilson-Raybould had the power to intervene, to publicly instruct her to change her decision – but it would be the first time it was ever done in the 12 years since the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions was created.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould pointed out that intervening is a big deal, that unless the director of public prosecutions made an outrageous decision, the government had to accept it – and that, in this case, Ms. Roussel’s decision was appropriate. She said intervening would smack of political interference.
But the thing that Mr. Wernick didn’t seem to get was that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was telling him that the political interference was coming from people like him – that the Prime Minister’s pushing for her to reconsider was improper.
Mr. Wernick kept countering that the attorney-general had the legal power to intervene, and that the deferred prosecution agreements are appropriate legal tools. But he didn’t seem to understand that she was telling him the decision to intervene had to be a prosecutorial one, that the decision was clear, and that all the entreaties to reconsider amounted to political interference.
What was clear, in the end, was that Ms. Wilson-Raybould wasn’t going to change her mind.
After all of Mr. Wernick’s warnings and pleadings – his warning that the PM wasn’t taking no for an answer, that she was on a collision course – it’s not at all surprising that Ms. Wilson-Raybould wondered if that was the cause of her demotion to Veterans Affairs. Especially, as she noted in her written submissions, because she was first offered a post – of Indigenous Services Minister – that she had publicly said she could never accept.
Is it worse for the Prime Minister now? Yes. There’s a recording on which we hear the country’s top civil servant failing to heed the warnings that the government was crossing a dangerous line. He wasn’t threatening, but expressing anxiety that the real heavy, Mr. Trudeau, wouldn’t be denied.