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BC Election 2019 Category
Analysis
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Election 2019
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Federal Politics

It’s Uphill, but Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott Say They’re on the Right Path

Liberal dissidents on choosing independence after the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

By Michael Harris 28 Aug 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

How far can a prime minister go on a boyish smile, blue-sky blarney, snappy socks and good luck to face a vapid Opposition leader?

Far enough to make voters forget the rebellion of two ex-Liberal cabinet stars? The ones who got the boot from Justin Trudeau for insisting on the independence of the judiciary?

It has been seven months since the political melodrama of SNC-Lavalin first gripped the nation. It was a tale of power politics, meddling in the justice system and principled defiance. It dominated the news, re-routed major careers and blew a hole in the prime minister’s reputation as a new-age politician, a feminist and a straight shooter.

Now the starting pistol is about to be fired for the sequel to that debacle — this October’s federal election. Trudeau’s former minister of justice, as well as his former president of the Treasury Board, once in the eye of the SNC-Lavalin storm, are both seeking election as Independents.

The fate of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott will tell a lot about how badly the SNC-Lavalin scandal has hurt the Liberals, if at all, and what Canadians value in their elected and non-elected officials.

Wilson-Raybould is running in Vancouver Granville, which she won easily in the last election, with 44 per cent of the vote. Philpott is running in the Toronto-area riding of Markham-Stouffville. She won with 49 per cent of the vote in 2015, but the Conservative was not far behind with 43 per cent.

What are these two independent candidates hearing at doorsteps in their ridings, especially now that ethics commissioner Mario Dion has blown up Trudeau’s fanciful narrative of choir-boy innocence?

We now know not only was Trudeau up to his neck in the sleazy SNC-Lavalin affair, so were some of his senior cabinet ministers and top aides. They flew under the media radar until Dion’s report was released. Chief amongst those is Finance Minister Bill Morneau, whose department played huggy-bear kissy-face with SNC-Lavalin executives.

Philpott said many people she’s talked to are surprised by SNC-Lavalin’s ability to get new legislation passed that gave it an escape hatch from bribery and corruption criminal charges.

“People are surprised by the extent to which SNC-Lavalin managed the legislation, had the deferred prosecution agreement inserted into the omnibus budget bill, and the fact that the PM chose to prioritize political success and the success of a company facing one of the largest corruption cases in corporate history,” Philpott told The Tyee. “People are disappointed by those priorities.”

Wilson-Raybould said that along with concerns about affordable housing, health care and climate change, she has heard a similar refrain.

“People are talking about accountability, ethics and transparency in government,” she said. “They respond to me personally at the door, thank me for what I’ve done. They tell me how important it is to have someone with integrity uphold the rule of law.”

(Both candidates restrict their door-knocking to weekends and after 4 p.m., as they continue to carry out their MP duties until the writ drops in the first two weeks of September and the campaign officially begins.)

Philpott and Wilson-Raybould devoured the Dion report at the first opportunity. Sitting in her constituency office, with a packed schedule, Philpott read the report at warp speed. As much as she knew about the scandal, she wasn’t prepared for the commissioner’s level of detail.

“I was stunned, not because I was surprised at the overall finding. I was stunned by the fact that he revealed details proving it was worse than I knew in terms of the deep entanglement of SNC, the PM and the PMO. The sad thing is that many Canadians, particularly partisans, won’t read it.”

Wilson-Raybould was working in her Vancouver condo when she saw the Dion report online. Within minutes, both her phone and email were crashed by the avalanche of media requests for her response.

“I felt that the independence of the attorney general and the director of public prosecutions was vindicated pretty overwhelmingly,” she said. “What we said all along was confirmed and bolstered. But I was also sad. It wasn’t necessary to be reading this from an ethics report. It didn’t need to be that way if the PM had done the right thing.”

Like Philpott, Wilson-Raybould had her own eyes opened by Dion’s report. She says she didn’t personally see any evidence a crime was committed during the process, but the new information in the report is a matter for the RCMP to consider.

“I was not aware of the extent of it,” she said. “I had known that some of my colleagues had met with SNC. But when I read about the number of meetings, international meetings, PowerPoint presentations — the extraordinary amount of lobbying and legal opinions purposely sought outside of the office of the attorney general — I was aghast.”

“Conflict of interest law was violated so it’s up to the RCMP to do their job,” Wilson-Raybould added. “I know that many other people have more information to provide. There are at least nine of them out there, and what the RCMP does is up to them.”

As for Trudeau’s reaction to the Dion report, Wilson-Raybould offered the sharp end of the spear.

“I thought it was beyond disappointing. As a former minister, as an MP and as a citizen, I wanted the PM to acknowledge that he did something wrong, work to remedy it and apologize. We all know jobs are important. But it is a misplaced argument to say that protecting jobs justifies interfering in the rule of law.”

Wilson-Raybould was also troubled by the spin put on the ethics report by the national media. A sitting prime minister had just been found guilty of breaking ethics rules by improperly interfering in a criminal case.

But the press shied away from that monumental fact in favour of a different emphasis.

“The national media spun the ethics commissioner’s report in terms of whether or not it would affect the election,” Wilson-Raybould said. “That is hardly the point. When I walk down the street, what people say to me is focused on the fact that he broke the law and didn’t seem to understand how serious that was.”

Despite their political stardom and being on the side of the angels in the SNC-Lavalin affair, Philpott and Wilson-Raybould have the deck stacked against them as independent candidates. For a lot of reasons, independent candidates usually lose.

Money is the mother’s milk of politics. But campaign rules limit candidates’ spending based on riding size — about $107,000 for Wilson-Raybould, and $116,000 for Philpott. Their individual opponents have the same limits, but their political parties can also spend in the riding — $85,000 in Vancouver Granville, $100,000 in Markham-Stouffville.

And independent candidates don’t have access to the parties’ fundraising machines.

Even if they are elected, it’s hard to know how much clout Wilson-Raybould and Philpott will have. House of Commons rules are skewed against MPs who aren’t in a party.

“There are numerous differences between running as an Independent and running for a registered party, structural disadvantages, financial ones, and, if elected, from the perspective of rules that govern the House of Commons,” Philpott says.

“But there are huge advantages and freedoms. An Independent can fully and freely represent the desires and concerns of constituents. Partisan members of Parliament are burdened with party discipline, messaging obligations and voting instructions.”

Philpott has 200 volunteers signed up, with 70 already door-knocking or making phone calls from her campaign headquarters. Her plan is to add another 200 for the election period. She says her supporters and volunteers are more highly motivated than they were in 2015.

“Many of them get out several days a week, and these are busy people with demanding jobs. The chief of surgery in my local hospital is out five to six hours knocking on doors for me. These people believe in a strong democracy, and I am deeply honoured by that kind of support. Once the writ drops, I will be on the doors morning, noon and night.”

So far, Philpott’s crew has knocked on 8,000 doors. The candidate’s plan is to knock on all 40,000 doors in Markham-Stouffville at least once during the campaign.

But she will probably have a doppelgänger on the same doorsteps — someone she considered to be a friend.

Helena Jaczek was initially cool to the idea of running against Philpott but is now seeking the Liberal nomination in Markham-Stouffville. Like Philpott, Jaczek is a doctor, a former health minister (in Ontario) and a woman. Philpott is clearly surprised by the development.

“We were friends. I helped her a lot. I knocked on doors for her in two campaigns in Ontario. I did fundraisers and shared volunteers with her. That’s why she originally told them, ‘Why would I run against Jane?’” Philpott said. “After that time, she must have been influenced by people who want to see me defeated.”

Like her friend Philpott, Wilson-Raybould has her campaign in hand. All but one of the executive members of her former riding association have resigned, with the vast majority now working for the new campaign. She has 350 volunteers who've divided up the riding and knocked on 4,500 doors.

The candidate says her troops, like Philpott’s, are even more highly motivated than they were in the last election. Even though fundraising is never easy, Wilson-Raybould says her campaign is approaching the maximum campaign amount each candidate is allowed to spend.

“We’re doing well. We can’t issue tax receipts prior to the writ being dropped; we’re closing in on that number. We are optimistic we will reach our targets. We will receive more donations when people can receive that tax receipt.”

“But here’s something interesting,” she added. “We’re getting contributions from all over the country, from Nova Scotia to Iqaluit, from every part of the country.”

Wilson-Raybould’s Liberal opponent is tech entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed. She says Noormohamed wanted to be the Liberal candidate in Vancouver Granville in 2015 but backed out. He ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in 2011 in North Vancouver, and also lost a nomination battle with Hedy Fry in Vancouver Centre in 2004. This time around, he got the Liberal nomination by acclamation.

Wilson-Raybould’s Liberal opponent says he is not interested in rehashing the SNC-Lavalin affair, but will instead focus on issues like housing, transportation, climate change and health care.

With four debates already confirmed in Vancouver Granville, and as many as eight planned, it is unlikely Noormohamed will be able to avoid the subject that consumed the country for so many months. At some point he will have to do the worst job in electoral politics — defend the indefensible.

One of Wilson-Raybould’s deep regrets about how the Trudeau government handled the SNC affair is the extent of “blind loyalty” to a tainted leader.

“I try not to be surprised, but am continually surprised,” she said. “A lot of people around the PM don’t seem to understand that you are doing your job when you can look yourself in the mirror. My former colleagues ought to be reflective about whether they can do that. I am concerned that there were not more individuals who stood up and spoke up for the independence of the judiciary. It would have gone a long way to helping the situation. We are nothing if we don’t have a rules-based system.”

Philpott has no doubts about her decision to resign from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin affair, but still experiences a certain wistfulness looking back.

“I had such mixed feelings in a way,” Philpott said. “You know, many of the things the PM stands for are very good and honourable. I don’t wish the government ill. I like seeing government provide housing and lift people out of poverty.”

“But this is such a profound and egregious set of circumstances that I do feel we have to keep it in the public eye. And I can’t stand the argument that no matter what the Liberals did, they are at least better than the Conservatives. That is essentially a form of fearmongering, to say we can get away with doing this because we’re better than the bogeyman. I hope we can wake up Liberal partisans to say, ‘We want better.’ Yes, we want all the good things, but we don’t want to vote for this level of corruption.”

The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.  [Tyee]

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