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Federal Politics

On the Record: We Did Nothing Wrong, Says Trudeau’s Ex-Top Advisor

Gerald Butts tells committee Wilson-Raybould should have complained if she felt pressured.

Tyee Staff 6 Mar

[Editor’s note: Gerald Butts, former principal sector to prime minister Justin Trudeau, offered his version of events around Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation and SNC-Lavalin before a parliamentary committee Wednesday. Here are excerpts from the written text of his opening statement.]

I want to say at the outset that I am not here to quarrel with the former attorney general, or to say a single negative word about her personally.

What I am here to do is to give evidence that what happened last fall is in fact very different from the version of events you heard last week.

I want to make three important points in some detail.

First, everyone working on this file knew that the decision to direct the Director of Public Prosecutions to enter into negotiations toward a remediation agreement in the SNC-Lavalin case was the attorney general’s to make, and the attorney general’s alone. We also knew that the decision, whatever it was, would have a real impact on thousands of people, and we took our responsibility to those people very seriously. We respected the attorney general’s authority at all times, and did our jobs with integrity at all times.

Second, while the attorney general is the decision-maker on remediation agreements, the prime minister is the decision maker on cabinet shuffles. I will provide you with detailed evidence that the January cabinet shuffle had nothing whatsoever to do with SNC-Lavalin.

Third, I believe that this is a story of two people who hold high office, the prime minister and the former attorney general, both of whom did their jobs to the best of their abilities, as did their respective staff. There was no malice directed toward anyone personally or professionally. However, a breakdown in the relationship between the former attorney general and the prime minister occurred. That breakdown coloured the unrelated events of the fall of 2018 in a negative light for many of the people involved. As the main point of contact in the PMO for the former minister of justice, I take responsibility for it.

The prime minister gave and maintained clear direction to the PMO and Privy Council Office on this file. That direction was to make sure the thousands of people whose jobs were, and it bears repeating, are at risk were at the forefront of our minds at all times.

He told us to keep in mind at all times that the decision to direct the Director of Public Prosecutions to enter into negotiations for remediation agreements rests with the attorney general, and the attorney general alone. We implemented that direction faithfully and with integrity.

So it was and is the attorney general’s decision to make. It would, however, be Canadians’ decision to live with.

Specifically, the 9,000-plus people who could lose their jobs, as well as the many thousands more who work on the company’s supply chain. The heart of the matter is that the prime minister and those around him believed that this is a real and significant public policy challenge that deserves a robust and thoughtful response.

Pressing Wilson-Raybould to seek an outside opinion

We had a view that it would be appropriate for her to seek independent advice from an eminent Canadian jurist or panel of jurists. We believed that this was appropriate, first, because the law empowering the attorney general to use remediation agreements is new. Second, we felt that outside advice was appropriate because of the extraordinary consequences of a conviction.

That was the entirety of our advice to the attorney general, which we made clear she was free to accept or not.

When you boil it all down, all we ever asked the attorney general to consider was a second opinion.

We learned last week that the director of public prosecutions made her decision not to pursue a remediation agreement on Sept. 4, and that the attorney general was out of the country until Sept. 12. In that version of events, the attorney general made the final decision after weighing all of the public interest matters involved in just 12 days.

There’s another important point here. I learned for the first time while watching the former attorney general’s testimony that she had made a final decision on Sept. 16.

My understanding is that nobody in the PMO or PCO knew that at the time either. In fact, it is not to my knowledge how the law works. My understanding is that the attorney general’s power to direct the DPP extends until the time a verdict is rendered. I believe the former attorney general confirmed this in her appearance here last week. The DPP considered the matter again itself in late September, when new evidence was presented by the company, and the DPP made a fresh decision on Oct. 9.

In any case, that was our operating assumption. The decision was not made, and we were free to inform it with advice. In the end, it was the attorney general’s alone to make, and it would be for all of us to explain.

No warning of the conflict

In all our texts and emails, which begin the summer of 2013, there is not a single mention of this file or anyone’s conduct on this file until during the cabinet shuffle.

This is a basic and important point. If any cabinet minister is made aware of something they think is wrong, I believe at a minimum they have an obligation to inform the prime minister soon after they become aware of it. And it ought to be in writing so that its significance isn’t lost on its lay audience.

Personally, I spoke with the former attorney general once on this file, on Dec. 5.

She raised it with me at the end of a two-hour dinner at the Château Laurier hotel.

I said that it was her call, and I knew it was her call. I have no memory of her asking me do anything, or to speak with staff about any aspect of the file.

I did not and do not see how our brief discussion of that file constituted pressure of any kind.

The second and final meeting I had on the file was with Jessica Prince, the minister’s chief of staff, and Katie Telford [Trudeau’s chief of staff]. I remember that meeting very, very differently than the account given last week. I remember Ms. Prince saying that the minister didn’t want to consider “political factors” in the decision, and was worried about the appearance of political interference. I said that it is the minister’s decision of course, but 9,000 people are not a political issue. It was a very real public policy issue, in my view. I said that we needed to provide a rationale either way she decided, and I could not see how having someone like Beverley McLachlin give the minister advice constituted political interference.

I also want to say that Ms. Telford’s comments were reported here last week badly out of context. Ms. Telford was simply saying what we say all the time when legal matters come up in the presence of lawyers: that we are not lawyers and cannot debate the law. On the op-ed point, she was simply saying that we would do our best to support the minister, whatever decision she chose to make in this matter.

How do you define pressure?

This to me begs the entire question of what exactly constitutes pressure?

According to the former minister’s testimony, 11 people made 20 points of contact with her or her office over a period of close to four months. That is two meetings and two phone calls per month on an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 Canadians their job. The minister confirmed last week that nobody ever asked her to make or not make the decision.

You now know that the subject of those interactions was whether she would take independent, external advice on the matter.

It did not seem to me then, and does not now, that what we did was anything other than what those 9,000 people would have every right to expect of their prime minister.

The attorney general and the prime minister saw each other frequently. The attorney general could have written or spoken to the prime minister at any time during this process to say attempts to contact her office on the matter were improper, and they should cease immediately.

However, the PMO’s interactions with the attorney general’s office were only called into question by the attorney general at the time of the cabinet shuffle.

Why Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out as justice minister

Let me say at the outset, categorically: the January cabinet shuffle had absolutely nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin.

On Dec. 12, minister Scott Brison approached me and Ms. Telford to tell us he was not running again. The minister said he didn’t have to leave cabinet right away, but that he hoped we could manage a departure some time not too far into the New Year. We had no idea that he was even thinking about retirement.

If Minister Brison had not resigned, minister Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice today.

Cabinet selections are among the most difficult tasks for any first minister. The media treats them like the political equivalent of the NHL trade deadline, but the prime minister treats them very, very seriously.

In this case, the prime minister would have just a handful of days to factor in all of these complex considerations. And I can say to you with absolute certainty that SNC-Lavalin was not one of them.

The prime minister told us he wanted to move the fewest number of people possible. He reminded us that Treasury Board is an important job that few people outside Ottawa understand, but that it was vital for the basic functions of government. He said it could not be filled by a new minister.

This left us two large challenges that could not be solved with one person. We needed a Nova Scotia minister and a Treasury Board chair with ministerial experience. All signs pointed to Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott moving to Treasury Board. She had been vice-chair, so she had the experience to do the job.

The prime minister agreed with this, but he was worried about the signal it would send to Indigenous people.

He wanted a person in Indigenous services who would send a strong signal that the work would keep going at the same pace, and that the file would have the same personal prominence for him. He also wanted to move someone who could be replaced from outside of cabinet, to keep the shuffle small and contained.

The right (and perhaps only) person who could do that was minister Wilson-Raybould.

The shortlist for justice included several eminent lawyers with good backgrounds, including David Lametti.

That was the context in which the prime minister made the decision to move minister Wilson-Raybould. Neither her move from justice nor minister Lametti’s move into it had anything whatsoever to do with SNC-Lavalin.

So the plan was a simple one. Philpott to Treasury Board, Wilson-Raybould to Indigenous services. Bring Lametti into justice, and [Nova Scotia MP Bernadette] Jordan into the new rural affairs portfolio that caucus had been lobbying for.

The situation started to change on the weekend of Jan. 5. The prime minister spoke to minister Philpott in person in his office on Sunday, Jan. 6. The prime minister debriefed us right afterward. He said minister Philpott was excited by the challenge. She said minister Wilson-Raybould was an excellent choice for Indigenous services, but worried she would see it as a demotion. Minister Philpott then told the prime minister that she worried that minister Wilson-Raybould might wonder if her move were connected to the “DPA issue.” That was the first time I ever heard anyone suggest that this cabinet shuffle was in any way related to the SNC-Lavalin file.

The prime minister assured minister Philpott that the shuffle had nothing to do with the file.

After that meeting, I spoke to the prime minister privately. He was clearly disturbed and surprised by what minister Philpott had said. I said to him that he had to factor into his thinking the possibility that the assertion she made would be made publicly, however far-fetched it seemed.

On Jan. 7, the prime minister phoned the minister of justice and attorney general to inform her that he was shuffling cabinet, and that she would be part of that shuffle. I was present for the entire conversation, as was Ms. Telford.

The prime minister began the call by saying that minister Brison’s sudden departure had put us in “a tough spot.” He said that he didn’t want to shuffle cabinet but that he needed our “best players” to move in order to “pitch in.” He said the Indigenous agenda was really important to him and to the country, as the attorney general knew well. He said he didn’t want to move minister Philpott, but that she was the best-qualified person to do Treasury Board because she had been vice-chair.

He then said that would leave a large hole at Indigenous services, and he didn’t want people to think he was relenting at all on the agenda. He said he knows how much she “loves being MOJAG” but that she was one of our top people, and moving her to Indigenous services would “show Canadians how seriously we take this.”

There was a long pause on the phone. minister Wilson-Raybould said that she was “a little bit shocked” because minister of justice and attorney general was her “dream job.” She said “Indigenous services is not my dream job. I’m not going to lie about that.” The prime minister said “I know it is not your dream job, but it is core to this government’s mission and legacy. It is core to my and your mission and legacy.”

After another pause, minister Wilson-Raybould said “I feel I’m being shifted out of justice for other reasons.” I could tell the prime minister was taken aback by this, but he simply replied that he was doing this shuffle because he had to, and because he thinks it’s the best thing for the government and the country.

Wilson-Raybould says no

Then minister Wilson-Raybould did something I didn’t expect. I had never seen anyone do it before, in many shuffles, over many years. The former attorney general turned down a cabinet portfolio. She said she could not do it for the reason that, frankly, I should have thought she would say, and I probably would have, had we had more time. She said she had spent her life opposed to the Indian Act, and couldn’t be in charge of the programs administered under its authority. I undertook to ask the prime minister to consider alternatives, but I also said I had never seen a minister turn down a ministry. I said, obviously, it’s not my call, but I would try my best.

The obvious question is why did the prime minister not leave the minister in her old job if she turned down a new one? My advice on that matter was this: if you allow a minister to veto a cabinet shuffle by refusing to move, you soon will not be able to manage cabinet. It was not possible in this instance for the prime minister to go further than additionally offering the veterans affairs post.

Over the next few days, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and I talked and corresponded many times. I knew from the course of those conversations and exchanges that trust had broken down between our office and the minister. I was deeply concerned by what the minister was saying. It was all a great and sad surprise to me that she could draw those sorts of conclusions about her colleagues, including myself. I tried to counter her misapprehensions with repeated, honest efforts. In the end, I unable to do so. And here we are today.

Why Wilson-Raybould should have resigned, and why he did

This is not about Jody Wilson-Raybould and Gerald Butts’s friendship or working relationship. It is about the relationship between two of the most important offices in Canada: the one Ms. Wilson-Raybould held, and the one I served. I believe her office carries with it a duty for its occupant to inform the prime minister of improper behaviour, in writing, at or near the time the behaviour is observed. If the prime minister does not do something about it, the attorney general should inform the public and resign.

We did what any responsible government would, of any political stripe. We worked as hard as we could, strictly within the laws and conventions of the country, to protect thousands and thousands of Canadian jobs. The prime minister did the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons. As did his staff and colleagues.

The prime minister and I have been close friends for almost 30 years. If I stayed on, his actions or inactions toward me could have been used to accuse him of playing favourites, that he was choosing his best friend over a minister. I could not allow our friendship to be held against him, so resigning was the right and necessary thing to do for the office, and the prime minister.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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