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Federal Politics

Five Facts to Help You Assess the SNC-Lavalin Affair

Did Trudeau and his people do wrong? Some points to consider.

Paul Willcocks 4 Mar

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

One thing we learned in the wake of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is that Canadians should quit feeling smug about the hyper-partisan, fact-free state of politics in the U.S.

The reaction, from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s immediate and unsupported call for Justin Trudeau’s resignation to Liberal attacks on Wilson-Raybould’s ability to withstand the pressure of her former job as attorney general — when, in fact, her ability to withstand pressure seems one of the few certainties at this point — was marked mostly by partisan rhetoric. Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault went full Trump, calling the justice committee’s investigation a “witch hunt.”

Ignore the tidal wave of spin and misinformation. Here are five things to consider as you assess the rights and wrongs of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

First, it was legitimate for the prime minister, cabinet members and political staff to try to persuade Wilson-Raybould to step in and reverse the decision that SNC-Lavalin should face bribery and corruption charges over its activities in Libya.

Wilson-Raybould said as much in her opening statement to the committee. “It is appropriate for cabinet colleagues to draw to the attorney general’s attention what they see as important policy considerations that are relevant to decisions about how a prosecution will proceed,” she told the justice committee.

The key word is relevant. The prime minister’s office — the centre of power in Ottawa — wanted the company to be allowed to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement, an option added to the Criminal Code last year after lobbying by SNC-Lavalin. The criminal charges would be stayed, SNC-Lavalin would pay a penalty and promise not to break the law, and there would be no trial. And no conviction, meaning SNC-Lavalin wouldn’t be barred from receiving federal government contracts. (According to one analyst, those contracts could be worth about $1.4 billion a year, about 15 per cent of SNC-Lavalin’s total revenue.)

The Criminal Code sets out objectives when considering a deferred prosecution agreement, including “to reduce the negative consequences of the wrongdoing for persons — employees, customers, pensioners and others — who did not engage in the wrongdoing, while holding responsible those individuals who did engage in that wrongdoing.”

So it was within the law — and I’d say ethical boundaries — for politicians and senior officials to claim criminal prosecution might cost jobs.

Second, it is wrong ethically — and perhaps legally — for those same people to press Wilson-Raybould to shut down the prosecution because it’s bad for the Liberal Party of Canada. That would be a fundamental subversion of the justice system, a confirmation that there is one law for the politically well-connected and another for the rest of us. Wilson-Raybould says that she was repeatedly pressured to intervene on the basis of partisan political interests.

Third, presenting information to the attorney general — even pressuring her — is acceptable if her ultimate right to make the decision independently is respected. That independence is critical to a functioning justice system. As soon as politicians can decide who face charges and who doesn’t, justice ends and cronyism and corruption begin. Again, Wilson-Raybould’s evidence suggests that line was crossed by pressure from the most powerful long after her decision was made, including “veiled threats.”

Fourth, Trudeau had the right to fire Wilson-Raybould at any time and install an attorney general who would do what he wanted on SNC-Lavalin. But the prime minister should not be allowed to pretend that’s not what happened.

Trudeau continues to maintain that Wilson-Raybould was only demoted because MP and Treasury Board Scott Brison resigned, and some changes to cabinet had to follow. It’s a laughable claim, especially as new Attorney General David Lametti has said he’s open to overturning the SNC-Lavalin decision.

Fifth, and finally, it’s important to note that to this point no one has contradicted or disputed Wilson-Raybould’s version of events.

Trudeau has said repeatedly that he disagrees that any of the pressure was inappropriate, as has his Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick.

But they are not the people to judge what is appropriate. A key issue in the SNC-Lavalin affair is the massive centralization of power in the prime minister’s office and the way it can be wielded to benefit special interests. It’s hardly surprising those accused of misusing that power would believe they had done nothing wrong.

No one has denied pressuring Wilson-Raybould or raising partisan political concerns as reasons to allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid prosecution. No one has challenged her evidence to the committee about meetings and phone calls and “veiled threats” aimed at heading off the criminal charges.

Perhaps they will. The justice committee will hear from more witnesses.

Until then, ignore the spin and misrepresentations from all sides, and focus on the disturbing evidence so far, the law and what you consider to be acceptable ethical behaviour.  [Tyee]

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