In the abandoned ruins of Ottawa

Paul Wells: How did the SNC-Lavalin scandal manage to rattle this government so badly? Because it reveals some truths to Canadians about this Prime Minister.

Jody Wilson-Raybould’s and Jane Philpott’s place in or out of the Liberal caucus matters less than most of the two-month SNC-Lavalin drama. A parliamentary caucus is not a rules organization, it’s a trust organization. Liberals no longer trusted the two former ministers, in part because clearly neither trusts the Prime Minister. So out they went. How other people organize their clubs is their concern.

I’ll note a contradiction: in 2002, when the entire country knew Paul Martin was plotting to unseat a sitting Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin continued to sit as a member of the Liberal caucus. Ah yes, some Liberal friends remind me, but that’s because most of the caucus was in on Martin’s scheme. That’s true, and it raises stubborn and recurrent questions about the wisdom of Liberal caucuses. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes say, “My best thinking brought me here.” A Liberal caucus in the grip of its best thinking is a wonder to behold.

But onward. I’m left with questions from Wilson-Raybould’s recording of her December phone conversation with Michael Wernick, the soon-to-be-former clerk of the Privy Council. Sure, it’s a terrible thing when a woman records her 20th surreal conversation with people who insist they’re not pressuring her. Here’s her penalty: I’ll ignore what she said on that call and listen only to Wernick.

He describes an imminent, pressing economic crisis that has transfixed the Prime Minister of Canada. “Our intelligence from various sources,” he says, is that SNC’s board has asked consulting firms for options that could include “selling out to somebody else, moving—you know, various things.” All of this “seems to be real and not a bluff,” Wernick says.

Trudeau “wants to be able to say he has tried everything within the legitimate toolbox” to avert this disaster. He is “determined” and “firm.” “I think he is going to find a way to get it done one way or another.” He is in “that kinda mood.”

The conversation goes poorly. “I am going to have to report back before he leaves,” Wernick says. “He is in a pretty firm frame of mind about this, so I am a bit worried . . . . I just saw him a few hours ago and this is really important to him.” Fortunately, “He is still around tomorrow.”

READ MORE: Jody Wilson-Raybould: ‘The Liberal party is not something I understand anymore’

And then, according to later replies to inquiries from both the Prime Minister’s Office and Trudeau himself, Wernick never breathed a word about this extraordinary conversation to the Prime Minister. Even though Trudeau was in Ottawa for a day after the clerk’s call with Wilson-Raybould. Even though telephones work in Whistler, where he vacationed following a pre-Christmas trip to Mali. Even though he was in the office for another day, back from holidays, before launching a cabinet shuffle.

What part of this sounds like the work habits of a serious Prime Minister?

If you, dear reader, were determined and firm and looking to get something done one way or another, if you were in that kinda mood, I bet you wouldn’t let three weeks go by without checking in on a file’s progress.

And then, if you switched out the deeply aggravating attorney general for a new one, say a solid white male McGill graduate like you and Gerry Butts—entirely by accident! It’s not as though that was the goal or anything!—I’m betting you wouldn’t let two more months go by without fixing the no-bluff 9,000-job problem.

And yet that’s what Justin Trudeau has done. The so-called deferred prosecution agreement that would have saved SNC from a trial, but that only an attorney general could order the public prosecutor to negotiate, remains available. At this writing, David Lametti hasn’t delivered the public order that would trigger its use. Now, of course, there’s been a lot going on. But was Trudeau only intent on action if he could be bold in secret? Was he only going to save those 9,000 jobs if it was easy? How thrilled are you to learn that a Prime Minister who’s determined and firm and in that kinda mood hasn’t actually done anything to get closer to effective action?

I ask because I’ve been struck by a peculiarity of this whole mess. It’s this: How did this scandal manage to rattle this government so profoundly? And the best answer I can find is this: Because it reveals truths about this Prime Minister that shake many Canadians’ confidence in him.

As my moral betters in the newspaper columns never tire of repeating, by many standards the SNC-Lavalin mess is quite modest. It seems probable that no money changed hands improperly in 2018 and no law was broken. The protagonists were motivated mostly by a kind of distracted hunch that jobs might be at stake. I mean, the extent to which they had zero evidence for that is breathtaking, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. And also by a similarly vague suspicion that it might be bad for branded Liberal candidates if SNC ran into trouble ahead of a Quebec or federal election.

That latter motivation is specifically forbidden in the Open and Accountable Government handbook the PM and the clerk told every minister to read and take to heart. Which helps explain why it’s the only claim Wilson-Raybould made in her testimony to the Justice Committee that the PM’s team wouldn’t touch in their rebuttals.

But still, the whole thing is easy to dismiss as a technicality or a misunderstanding. So why did the Liberals take such a hammering in the polls as it played out? Why, indeed, has Trudeau’s biggest trouble before SNC come from other incidents that would not normally make the big leagues of global scandal, such as his colourful but otherwise vacuous trip to India and his clandestine island vacation with Seamus O’Regan and the Aga Khan?

The answer, I think, is that each time, they reveal unlovely truths about this Prime Minister.

READ MORE: Jane Philpott: ‘We cannot ever be afraid of the truth’

First, a constitutional inability to tell the truth quickly. It took a year, and the industrious digging of the ethics commissioner, to get details of the Aga Khan vacation. The early response to the SNC story (“That did not happen”) has been replaced only with progressively more sophisticated attempts at obfuscation.

Second, a tendency to parry questions of substance with appeals to partisan advantage. As the SNC story dragged on, and especially after Jane Philpott doubled the number of ex-ministers who were not content to let it die, just about every Liberal loyal to Trudeau defaulted to arguing that the rest of us had to stop asking questions because Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives might benefit.

This is deeply undemocratic. Canadians are grown-ups. They can vote by their own lights, based on their own values, when election day comes. Not that it’s your business, but after all this I still am not close to deciding how I’ll vote this year. Andrew Scheer’s attitudes on climate change and immigration remind me that I like my Liberal MP. But the fact that she’s playing along with Trudeau’s season-long self-pity circus makes me wonder who my local Green candidate will be. But in the meantime, we have a government right now. It is governing right now. It has been governing for years. Serious questions deserve serious answers, even if they embarrass some party leader you dislike less than some other party leader.

And incidentally, “because it’s an election year” is precisely the argument Jody Wilson-Raybould says she heard, again and again, from assorted PMO emissaries while they were trying to make her forget she was the attorney general of Canada. So maybe part of the Liberals’ problem is that they keep acting out her accusations, like dinner theatre.

Finally, all three of these scandalettes have laid bare a stubbornly ramshackle approach to running what has sometimes been a serious country. When flying to India, sure, pack your embroidered sherwani and your convicted attempted murderer, but also maybe bring along a travel plan, a sales pitch and a list of objectives worth achieving. Especially if your ineptitude is about to guarantee you will never get a second chance to visit India.

On SNC, what emerges from all the testimony is the impression that a dozen kids from the McGill debating team snuck into the abandoned ruins of Ottawa and started pretending to be the government of Canada. Jody complained to Bill that Elder and Ben were being mean to Jessica. Justin sent Michael but somehow Michael didn’t have the Section 13 ruling Jody had sent to Mathieu. Then it was Christmas and they all went home for a month.

Where the hell were the 208,000 public servants whose job was to ensure options were explored and workflows respected? Why, in September, when Wernick says everyone was distracted by NAFTA, did nobody at the weekly deputy ministers’ meeting say, “Well, there’s only room for 10 people at the NAFTA table, so why don’t the rest of us strike a working group of officials from Justice, Finance, Innovation and the Privy Council to ride this SNC puppy until we know what’s what?”

I’m pretty sure the reason this didn’t happen is that Butts found it thrilling to have all the important conversations run through his phone. That’s a bush-league reason to stumble into a government-shaking mess.

You vote how you like this fall. If anything I’ve written sounds like partisan advice, ignore it. But 21st-century Trudeauism as a system of government is badly broken: unserious, sneaky, incapable of multitasking, easily distracted. It needs fixing. To some extent the election will be about who can fix it. The Liberals’ advantage is that they have more intimate experience with its pathologies. I’m not sure how you fit that onto a campaign poster.


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