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COYNE: The latest tactic to suppress Wilson-Raybould — smear a judge

Wait, I thought it was all Scott Brison’s fault.

The usual anonymous sources are now whispering to reporters that the reason Jody Wilson-Raybould was fired as minister of justice and attorney general in January had nothing to do with her refusal to kill the prosecution of a Liberal-friendly firm in a province critical to the party’s election chances, as the prime minister and a phalanx of top officials had pressured her to do. No, according to reports by Canadian Press and CTV, it was because of her pick for a judicial appointment.

It seems Wilson-Raybould, in 2017, recommended Glenn Joyal, chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, to replace the retiring Beverley McLachlin as chief justice of the Supreme Court — a recommendation Justin Trudeau ultimately rejected. Bilingual, Oxford-trained, a former Crown attorney with 20 years’ experience on the bench, Joyal was on a short-list prepared by the prime minister’s own “independent, non-partisan” advisory board for the occasion.

Alas, it seems he failed some other tests. According to CP’s sources, the pick “puzzled” Trudeau, who became “disturbed” after “doing some research into Joyal’s views on the charter.” It turned out he had given a speech to a conservative legal foundation earlier that year in which he had made some mildly critical comments about judicial activism (“With the ’constitutionalizing’ of more and more political and social issues into fundamental rights, the Canadian judiciary has all but removed those issues … from the realm of future civic engagement and future political debate” gives you the flavour).

This is a bog-standard statement of the conservative position on the relationship between courts and legislatures. It is utterly mainstream. But apparently this so “disturbed” Trudeau that, as CTV reports, it “caused (him) to question his justice minister’s judgment.”

Several points are worth noting about this obviously deliberate leak. One is the casual violation of the very confidentiality provisions that are supposedly so sacred to Trudeau that he cannot fully release Wilson-Raybould, even today, from their clutches.

The second is the willingness, in the service of undermining the credibility of the former attorney general, to smear not only her — apparently in addition to being “difficult” and “in it for Jody,” she’s a crazed social conservative — but a sitting judge. (In reponses, Joyal issued a statement noting that he had in fact withdrawn his name from the process, owing to “my wife’s metastatic cancer,” and protesting that “someone is using my previous candidacy to the Supreme Court of Canada to further an agenda unrelated to the appointment process.”)

Journalists — journalists! — compete to be the loudest in their calls for the prime minister to kick them out of caucus. They are tarnishing the party brand!  

The third is the extraordinarily narrow litmus test Trudeau applies, if the stories are accurate, to judicial appointments. It would appear to be enough to make one speech calling for “a true dialogue” between the judicial and legislative branches to mark a judge as beyond the pale.

And fourth is its implausibility. If a prime minister were compelled, every time he disagreed with a ministerial recommendation, to replace that minister, there would be no one left in cabinet. In any case, notwithstanding Wilson-Raybould’s disturbing judgment, she remained minister of Justice for more than a year afterward, though the cabinet was extensively shuffled in the summer of 2018. Indeed, she would “still be there today,” according to the prime minister’s previous statements, but for Brison’s abrupt departure from Treasury Board.

Still, it’s of a piece with a determined push by Liberal partisans to shift the focus from the prime minister’s efforts to interfere with a criminal prosecution to the character and motives of his accusers — not only Wilson-Raybould but Jane Philpott, the former president of Treasury Board. Even respectable surrogates, never mind the seething mobs online, have been brazen enough to suggest the two women are besotted with their own celebrity, or are conspiring in some strange and baseless vendetta against the prime minister.

Journalists — journalists! — compete to be the loudest in their calls for the prime minister to kick them out of caucus. They are tarnishing the party brand! They are tearing the government down! What’s their real agenda? Somehow it does not occur to anyone to ask: Is what they are saying true?

They are challenged to “put up or shut up,” as if the prime minister were not still refusing to waive privilege over important parts of the timeline, or as if the Liberal majority on the Commons justice committee had not voted to refuse to call Wilson-Raybould back to tell the rest of her story.

The issue is not, why don’t they speak outside the committee, but: why can’t they speak in committee?

But they can speak elsewhere! Liberal partisans insist. They can ignore their confidentiality oaths, or say their piece in the Commons under cover of Parliamentary privilege. About that: Can they? As political science professor James Kelly of Concordia University has pointed out, their options for speaking in Parliament are in fact severely limited. They could make a one-minute member’s statement under Standing Order 31. Or they could speak for 10 minutes in debate on a bill — provided the Liberal whip lets them. Or the House could vote to let them speak in a special debate — if enough Liberals voted with the opposition to allow it. Catch 22!

In any case, this entirely misses the point. The issue is not, why don’t they speak outside the committee, but: why can’t they speak in committee? What possible argument can there be against it? Somehow the issue has become, not the prime minister’s obstructionist tactics, but their own alleged failure to find a way around his obstructions.

This has things back to front. It is up to public office-holders to allay all suspicion about their conduct, especially on such a serious matter. It is not up to the opposition, the press or the public to cut them some slack.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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