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Justin Trudeau is ahead of schedule, but his timing could hardly be worse.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and his Liberal government are neck deep in the big muddy, and the one person who could pull them out — Jody Wilson-Raybould — just quit Trudeau’s cabinet.
Political influence — it is alleged — was applied in an effort to gain preferential treatment for a powerful friend from Quebec. Something about that sentence screams: “The Liberals are back.”
In her letter of resignation as Veterans Affairs Minister on Tuesday, Wilson-Raybould made reference to her commitment to “a different way of doing politics,” which apparently does not include exercising political power to get some pals out of a legal jam.
The potential for a government-busting scandal in their first term puts the Liberals ahead of the normal rate of decay for a federal government. In the past, Liberal governments have been particularly adept at hiding their soiled linen.
Jean Chretien’s political inner circle, for example, was so practiced at the dark art of their craft that they managed to bequeath the lethal scandal they spawned to Chretien’s unfavoured successor, Paul Martin. Martin carried it to certain electoral defeat.
That was the sponsorship scandal. The SNC-Lavalin matter is, for the moment, a confluence of troubling questions. But the questions are many, and the matter is serious enough to attract the full attention of the federal ethics commissioner.
Worse, the whole thing erupted just nine months before Canadians next vote in a federal election, so the stakes are as high as they get in Canadian politics.
It’s been almost a week since The Globe and Mail reported the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Wilson-Raybould, then the nation’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, to intercede in a prosecution against the Quebec engineering and construction behemoth SNC-Lavalin.
Lavalin is no stranger to legal trouble, including a conviction for illegal campaign contributions, made mostly to — you guessed it — Liberals.
The PMO, so the story goes, wanted criminal charges against Lavalin dropped in favour of proceeding with a remediation agreement whereby the company would, in all likelihood, admit and denounce its wrongdoing, promise to behave, and pay a financial penalty.
SNC-Lavalin is charged with corruption and bribery related to Libyan contracts and conviction would disqualify the company from federal contracts for a decade.
Not surprisingly, the remediation option is brand new in Canadian law. It was buried deep in the 2018 omnibus budget bill where it attracted little notice. Lavalin’s legal troubles were well and fully understood in the halls of Liberal power when that provision was quietly ushered into law.
The Liberals created it presumably to use it.
But Wilson-Raybould threw a wrench into the plan. She refused to intervene with the federal prosecutor who is proceeding with the criminal case against Lavalin and has dismissed the remediation option as inappropriate.
In January, you may recall, Wilson-Raybould was removed from Justice and sent to Veterans Affairs. She was succeeded by former McGill law professor David Lametti, whose deference to the PMO has been unwavering in recent days. Indeed, that quality may be exactly what the prime minister sought in a new attorney general and justice minister.
When she was shuffled out at Justice, Wilson-Raybould wrote an extraordinary public letter that has taken on heightened relevance in recent days.
Reflecting on the role of the attorney general of Canada, she wrote that the job “demands a measure of principled independence.”
“It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference,” she wrote.
Was Wilson-Raybould demoted and replaced by the more pliable Lametti to get SNC-Lavalin the remediation agreement? The Liberals changed the law to create the remediation option. They intended to use it.
But that was before the leak alleging political interference and now Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation.
The federal Liberals need to figure out how to put this behind them, or they will be haunted by it to and through the fall election.
The prime minister denies that his office pressured the former attorney general, but Canadians want to hear what Wilson-Raybould has to say about that.
And she lawyered up — way up — and retained former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell to give her legal advice before she says anything. She may be constrained by both cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege, because the attorney general is, in effect, the government’s lawyer.
Whatever her lawyer decides, the fate and future of the Trudeau government could well hang in the balance.