The SNC affair is now an existential threat to the Trudeau government

Jen Gerson: Jane Philpott’s resignation came as the Liberals doubled down on dodgy behaviour, blowing their chance to turn things around

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Philpott, right, with Jody Wilson-Raybould at Rideau Hall on the day of the cabinet shuiffle last month (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

It is at this point in the scandal, with the resignation of one of Justin Trudeau’s most competent and respected cabinet ministers, that a professional political speculator must begin to ask whether the Prime Minister can survive all the way to the fall election.

It is hard to imagine a more damaging defection than that of Jane Philpott, until Monday president of the Treasury Board. Since Trudeau’s election, Philpott had become one of the few breakout stars in an otherwise dim cabinet.

“The evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former attorney general to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me,” she wrote while scattering cherry bombs in the cabinet room behind her. “Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”

The unanswered question now before us is how the rest of the caucus feels about the matter. If Philpott’s position is a minority one, the rest of Trudeau’s party may yet fall in line.

Confidence, however, is a spinning top, and Philpott’s abandonment may be what was required to it set it wobbling.

READ: Jane Philpott’s full statement on resigning from cabinet

There can be no real dispute that Philpott’s objections are perfectly valid.

Only a month ago, the Globe and Mail broke the story claiming that former attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured by the Prime Minister’s staff to override her independent public prosecutor’s decision not to seek a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the scandal-prone Quebec firm SNC-Lavalin.

Even as more information began to emerge suggesting those allegations were well-founded, Trudeau’s response has been an unmitigated moral and strategic gong show.

The affair culminated in a detailed testimony by Wilson-Raybould in front of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights last week. She offered accounts detailing how she was pressured by the Prime Minister, his staff and even the non-partisan clerk of the PCO.

Trudeau had one brief window to turn the scandal around; if he had proof that Wilson-Raybould was lying, or misrepresenting, he should have come out with it days ago.

Instead, he travelled to a friendlier press corps in Montreal to deliver a brief statement stating that he disagreed with her “characterization” of events.

The entire show was was incredibly, untenably weak.

Trudeau could have taken an alternative route. If his government is, indeed, as transparent and honest as it wanted to be when it came into office in 2015, Trudeau could have simply owned up to making a mistake; to going too far in pursuit of protecting important Canadian jobs. He could have apologized.

RELATED: The Philpott earthquake

But that’s not what Liberals do.

At every turn in this scandal, the government has chosen to double down on dodgy behaviour.

Consider, for a moment, comments made by the Montreal-based Attorney General David Lametti, who replaced Wilson-Raybould after she wouldn’t play nice on SNC.

In an interview on Sunday, Lametti said that the matter of securing a DPA—which would allow the company to avoid a criminal trial in connection with allegations that it bribed Muammar Gadaffi’s son for projects in Libya—”no decision is ever final.”

Trudeau himself echoed Lametti’s hand-waving in Prince Edward Island on Monday.

“We are always going to stand up for good jobs, create good jobs and defend Canadians’ interests,” Trudeau said, according to the Chronicle Herald.

“This matter is to be determined by the attorney general. That is what I said to the former attorney general, and that’s something the current attorney general knows full well.”

A cliché term for this is “trial ballooning.” It’s as if the Liberals are still considering granting the DPA to SNC-Lavalin, despite the growing sinkhole forming underneath whatever was left of this government’s credibility.

There’s a perverse logic to granting the DPA, even now.

RELATED: How many times did Jody Wilson-Raybould need to say ‘No’?

First, if the Liberals were planning to stick to their insistence that they did nothing untoward, well, then, there’s no reason not to grant a DPA. Everything on the up-and-up, folks!

Second, the Liberals already burned so much of their political capital on the scandal, that there’s not much left to lose among those who still place any pride in principles. If you’re going to do the time anyway, might as well do the crime.

Saving SNC shows fealty to Quebec, which would secure a few seats come the writ drop. The whole scandal just shows how committed the Liberals are to middle-class, jobs, right? And who doesn’t want a leader who will strongly defend jobs?

Some Liberals will be upset, sure, but eventually most would write off the move as a little bit of underhanded realpolitik—nothing a lifelong partisan hasn’t defended from time to time. The most important point is to convince the general electorate that the Conservatives are just as corrupt or worse—actual Harperites, or probable Nazis.

And there are so many other important issues the Liberals—and the Liberals alone—have to tackle; climate change, Indigenous reconciliation. The very country is at stake, if one imagines that the Liberals’ interests are indivisible from Canada’s.

In the immortal words of Mathieu Bouchard, senior advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office, who allegedly said to Wilson-Raybould: “We can have the best policy in the world, but we need to be re-elected.”

If anyone could have put an end to this tack—and I’m not convinced that anyone did—it was Jane Philpott.

That is not a strategy that a genuinely principled person would defend with her own reputation, in public.

“The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system,” Philpott wrote in her resignation letter. “It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our attorney general should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases.”

That is the eternal problem with attracting people who have principles into politics.