For a commission of inquiry into SNC-Lavalin and the Prime Minister’s Office

Paul Wells: What’s alleged in today’s Globe story is not just plausible, it points to bigger PMO problems. And it’s the sort of thing that can destroy governments.
Cabinet Shuffle 20190114
New veterans Affairs Minister Jodie Wilson-Raybould addresses the media following a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Today’s most important reading was published on Jan. 14.

That’s when Jody Wilson-Raybould, the UBC-educated lawyer from the We Wai Kai Nation, released a long, detailed memo explaining her accomplishments as Minister of Justice and Attorney General—on the very day Justin Trudeau demoted her to the Veterans Affairs portfolio.

“The role of the Attorney General of Canada carries with it unique responsibilities to uphold the rule of law and the administration of justice, and as such demands a measure of principled independence,” she wrote. (I’m bolding the sections that seem particularly germane today.) “It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence. As such, it has always been my view that the Attorney General of Canada must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions, and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power. This is how I served throughout my tenure in that role.”

Look, that’s just an odd thing to write if you’re mostly interested in bragging about your legislative accomplishments.

I’ve seen a lot of attorneys general leave that post, and none felt the need to remind everyone that they had sought to avoid “even the perception of political interference.” Absent any pressure to do things that might give the perception of political interference, it would seem as extraneous as writing, “I worked hard to keep the mail-room budget under control” or “I tried to maintain excellent posture during Question Period.”

None of that proves a thing, of course. It’s not a smoking gun. It’s more of a… I don’t know, a smoke-filled room. But it is damned interesting reading in the context of today’s Globe and Mail line story. (It’s paywalled. Pay up.) The story asserts, on the basis of unnamed sources, that Wilson-Raybould “came under heavy pressure to persuade the Public Prosecution Service of Canada” to cut a “deferred prosecution arrangement” with SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., the mammoth Montreal engineering and construction firm, to forestall a trial over corruption and fraud charges.

Now, here’s the thing. SNC has been working hard to clean up its act, after several years as the worst kind of Quebec Inc. industrial juggernaut. Its former CEO Pierre Duhaime pled guilty only last week to, if I may paraphrase, spraying money in every direction to grease whatever wheels needed greasing. SNC’s late clean-up was driven, not so much by a morning-after-Scrooge burst of sudden altruism, but more by the threat of never getting another federal contract again if the company continued to stink like a polecat. But who cares about motive, as long as the arc of the moral universe bends toward better corporate governance?

READ MORE: In Trudeauland, who makes all the decisions?

Now, here’s the other thing: None of that matters. If—it’s a huge if—the Prime Minister’s Office leaned on the Attorney General to pressure the public prosecutor’s office to conduct any case in any way, then it doesn’t matter how nice the defendant is.

The intervention would be the infraction.

The Director of Public Prosecutions Act is clear: If the Attorney General inflects the work of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada in any way, for any reason, they must put it in writing in a directive that must be published in the Canada Gazette. There is no provision for cutting a nice guy some slack.

In fact, the course of events I’ve sketched above—battle-scarred pillar of Quebec Inc. wants fewer legal impediments to turn over a new leaf so it can continue scoring big global development contracts—makes the claims in the Globe story more plausible on their face. This is the sort of call one might conceivably make, if one did not care about what Jody Wilson-Raybould calls “a measure of principled independence.”

Wilson-Raybould’s on-the-record quotes in the Globe story are the furthest thing from denials. “That is between me and the government as the government’s previous lawyer” is not the sort of thing you say when an allegation is false. You say it’s false. I’m not saying Wilson-Raybould’s response proves anything, but it leaves ample room for the thing to be true, as one possibility among many.

The PMO line, sent last night to the Globe and repeated this morning by the PM, is nearly identical and nearly meaningless. The PM didn’t “direct” Wilson-Raybould “to draw any conclusions on this matter,” the PMO said on Wednesday. Trudeau chimed in today, singing close harmony: neither he nor his staff  “directed” JWR “to make any particular decision in this matter.” Thanks. That’s great. You could drive a truck through that. Pressure wouldn’t be “direction,” and at no point would Wilson-Raybould need to “draw any conclusions” or “make any particular decision”—she would, if the allegations are true, be trying to inflect someone else’s conclusions or decisions.

So where are we?

We have a minister of the crown—Wilson-Raybould is still that, as of today—reminding everyone that she had “unique responsibilities” against “even the perception of political appearance.”

We have a public trail of increasing dissatisfaction at SNC with the way this case was going, leading up to October, four months ago.

We have Wilson-Raybould getting shuffled out of her job, to her obvious displeasure, at the next opportunity.

We have non-denials from the minister and artfully meaningless denials from the Prime Minister.

The allegations at hand are vastly more grave than the news that Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, once wrote a personal cheque to make the Mike Duffy problem go away. This is about what Justin Trudeau’s first hand-picked attorney general calls a “pillar of our democracy.”

So let’s cut to the chase. When Justin Trudeau’s vacation with the Aga Khan started to become a problem, he spent a few weeks exploiting fine print and technicalities like a Philadelphia lawyer in hopes that everyone in Canada had lost their ability to parse transparent double-talk. There is no point in trying to do the same here.

In the absence of public denials from Jody Wilson-Raybould and her officials that anything like what is alleged in the Globe story ever happened—and I would say, even if she now makes any such denials—this needs a commission of inquiry. This is the sort of thing that, if proven, properly destroys governments.

One more question. Why on earth would any Liberal, knowing this, co-operate with the Globe’s investigation or any other stories that might come to light in coming days?

I don’t know who the Globe’s sources are, and I’ve learned that attempts to guess another reporter’s sources usually miss the mark by a mile. But let me make this general observation about the Liberal Party of Canada and Justin Trudeau’s PMO. In recent months I have been increasingly critical of the PMO and especially of Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts. Frankly it hasn’t been great fun. I don’t get a kick out of being that specific in criticisms of a government. And typically, when you say “PM’s staff,” no matter who the PM is, what you really mean is “the PM.” But the way this government hoses money around for show sickens me.

What I’ve noticed is that when I have been bluntly critical of Trudeau’s PMO, no Liberal in Canada, outside the PMO, has reached out to criticize me, to gently try to correct perceptions, or otherwise to suggest I’m off-track. In fact, in a large number of cases, the response has been quite the opposite. I hear things like “Thank God” and “About time” and “I’ve been loving those columns.”

That’s all very anecdotal and personal and back-patting, so I’m sorry for all of it. But the conclusion I draw is: Justin Trudeau’s senior PMO staff doesn’t have a lot of fans, even among people who wish Trudeau well and whose personal futures are bound up with his. That may start to matter a lot now.