The Globe and Mail dropped a major political crisis on the country Thursday morning when it reported former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of the post after she refused to intervene in a case against SNC-Lavalin over alleged bribes to Libyan government officials from 2001 to 2011.
The newspaper reported officials in the Prime Minister’s Office had pressured Wilson-Raybould to direct federal prosecutors to negotiate a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the corporation.
If the case proceeds and SNC-Lavalin is convicted, it would be banned from bidding on government contracts for 10 years. The Montreal-based engineering and construction giant told the Liberal government it would, in effect, settle out of court with a sweetheart deal that would cost the company a few million dollars. But it would be free to earn much more from future contracts.
If the allegations of preferential treatment for SNC-Lavalin hold up, then the Liberals will be in desperate trouble in this fall’s election. And the only thing that might save them would be replacing Justin Trudeau with Wilson-Raybould.
Wilson-Raybould could have called off the public prosecutor, and agreed to deferred prosecution. But doing so would have looked like succumbing to corporate blackmail: SNC-Lavalin fretted that layoffs would surely follow a conviction, not to mention harm to its pensioners and suppliers.
The company was arguing that it was too big to fail and, more importantly, too big to jail. Entirely too many Quebec jobs (and votes) were at stake.
You could almost say that it was a credit to Justin Trudeau’s basic honesty that his attempt at a coverup Thursday was so awkward. The Globe story said Wilson-Raybould had been pressured; Trudeau claimed on Thursday morning that she had not been “directed,” which was painfully obvious misdirection.
The media were not deceived. Paul Wells, in Maclean’s, parsed Wilson-Raybould’s departure statement, found a great deal of meaning in it, and called for a commission of inquiry. Wilson-Raybould’s own father observed, “If this mess comes out as messy as I imagine it might be, she will be one of the few people that won’t get any dirt on her.”
Perfect timing for the opposition
Coming early in an election year, the SNC-Lavalin story is perfectly timed. In the Burnaby-South byelection, it almost guarantees victory to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, especially since his Liberal adversary is a provincial retread from Christy Clark’s government. Singh will go to Ottawa eager to outdo Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in his attacks on Trudeau. Whether the story is investigated by a royal commission or the RCMP, SNC-Lavalin will dominate the headlines and social media for months to come.
The Liberals have been our natural governing party for much of the last century thanks to Quebec’s readiness to vote solidly, and usually for the Liberals. Win Quebec, and a national party is halfway to a majority. Brian Mulroney won two majority governments with Quebec’s support; without it, the Tories were reduced to two seats and eventual absorption by Stephen Harper’s Reform/Alliance. Even the Bloc Québécois was a major player when it took the province, and Quebec made the NDP the official opposition when Jack Layton won in 2011.
If the Liberals did indeed back SNC-Lavalin as a way to ensure Quebec support, even that support may evaporate. The Conservatives, NDP and even the Greens could shatter Quebec unanimity, and the next federal government would be unlikely to exert itself to save SNC-Lavalin’s jobs.
Who is this guy?
Meanwhile the rest of the country would step back from Justin Trudeau’s embrace and study him carefully. This is the guy who annoyed China by invoking the rule of law in arresting Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December. Just how serious is his dedication to the rule of law if it applies to foreign corporations like Huawei but not to SNC-Lavalin?
The Liberals must consider the Prairies a lost cause. Ontario will get Doug Ford and and Andrew Scheer doing a Bob and Doug McKenzie act aimed at laughing Trudeau off the stage. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party will snipe at the Tories from the right, and the NDP from the left, but to little avail.
B.C., meanwhile, is already split about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and its opponents will exploit the scandal to the utmost. The Lower Mainland Liberal vote will dwindle, while the NDP and Greens compete for disillusioned Liberal voters. The 2019 election will be a spectacular train wreck that could see the Liberals go the way of the 1920s Progressives, who merged with the Conservatives only to merge again in the 1990s with Reform/Alliance.
Desperate times demand desperate measures, and the Liberals have rarely seen a time as desperate as this. The man who brought them back to power and won them worldwide admiration has suddenly become a liability. As such, for the good of the party, he must go.
Trudeau might keep his seat and even run again, but he can’t remain prime minister while his opponents (including many in his own party) condemn him as a corporate utensil. He must resign as party leader and prime minister.
Who should replace him? His caucus has many talented people, but only one could save the Liberal Party: Jody Wilson-Raybould.
She was the advocate for the rule of law in the SNC-Lavalin case, and her statement on leaving made that clear. She is an Indigenous woman from a B.C. riding who served well as minister of justice until Trudeau demoted her to Veterans’ Affairs.
If the Liberals made her at least their interim leader, to carry them through the election, it would be a frank admission of guilt and a promise to redeem themselves.
Because it’s 2019
If Trudeau put so many women in cabinet “because it’s 2015,” it’s now 2019 — time for a woman prime minister. Wilson-Raybould might face the same fate as Kim Campbell when Mulroney bailed out in 1993, but she would have some advantages Campbell lacked.
Women would respond to a woman who was right and finally recognized as such. Canadians in general who think the rule of law is a good idea would also support her. Indigenous and minority voters would recognize her as one of their own, a person of integrity who would protect them.
Wilson-Raybould’s re-election in Vancouver Granville would be assured, and many other Liberals in the Lower Mainland would survive if she promised at least another look at the pipeline expansion.
The Liberal caucus would have to accept its punishment: a purge of the Prime Minister’s Office and submission to a new prime minister who would take them in uncomfortable directions: decent housing and drinkable water on Indigenous reserves, a colder eye on their corporate donors, and perhaps a serious commitment to fighting climate change. They wouldn’t like it, but the Liberals have always sacrificed principle for power, or at least the hope of it.
Of course, Wilson-Raybould could also play the long game, as Trudeau himself did. She could step back, let the party self-destruct, and when Trudeau resigned step forward again to become leader of a shaken party likely back in third place. But better, surely, to take charge now and steer the Liberals and Canada to the next election through whitewater politics such as we have rarely seen before.
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