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Federal Politics

Trudeau’s Dumb Expulsions and Strange Compulsions

JWR and Philpott are gone. So are any illusions about the PM’s allegiance to corporate masters.

Michael Harris 2 Apr

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

They got Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Jane Philpott too, but this is just the beginning.

You know you are in trouble in politics when your damage control is more damaging than what made it necessary.

That is where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals find themselves today, as LavScam passed through its last, masochistic agony — the expulsion of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from the Liberal caucus.

The former attorney general made it official in a tweet. Trudeau informed Wilson-Raybould that she is out of the Liberal caucus and not a Liberal candidate in the next election. The same for Philpott.

Wilson-Raybould’s PR value long gone as Canada’s first female, Indigenous justice minister, she and her lone supporter in cabinet are no longer wanted on the voyage.

But as Wilson-Raybould’s April 2 letter to the members of the national Liberal caucus affirming her commitment to the Liberal Party of Canada made clear: “I was upholding the values that we all committed to. In giving the advice I did, and taking the steps I did, I was trying to protect the Prime Minister and the government from a horrible mess.”

The Grits can expect to reap the full political consequences of this intemperate, unjust, and craven decision. So much for the big tent, the feminism, the much ballyhooed reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and doing politics a new way. At least the PM didn’t say, “Thank you for your contribution.”

None of this needed to happen.

The PM could have admitted to a terrible judgement call two months ago when the story of his interference in a criminal case broke in the Globe and Mail. He could have apologized to the former attorney general and let justice run its course.

Instead, the prime minister and his PMO have staggered from one communications disaster to the next as their story kept changing. Along the way, four very senior public figures, two Liberal cabinet ministers, the clerk of the privy council, and the PM’s principal secretary have bitten the dust. Now Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are tossed off the stern of the party’s boat.

Today’s ethical ineptitude was preceded by another — the PMO and Privy Council Office’s reaction to the “secret” tape that the former attorney general made of a call with the clerk of the privy council. It was the death march of absurdity.

The clerk, Michael Wernick, would have Canadians believe that he never briefed the prime minister on what was arguably the hottest file on the government’s radar — the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for bribery and corruption in Libya. If true, Wernick makes Rip Van Winkle look hyperactive.

Wernick’s explanation for this comic narrative is that it was Dec. 19, 2018, and “everyone went on holidays.” As every clerk of the privy council knows, the PMO never sleeps. And as Wernick may or may not know, Trudeau remained in Ottawa until he visited the troops in Mali on Dec. 22. The PM did not go on holiday until Dec. 23 that year.

Besides, there are Wernick’s own words on the Raybould tape: “Well, I am going to have to report back before he leaves.” Nowhere did he say “after the holidays.”

Wernick’s account was adopted with slight modifications by the PMO. The office claimed that Trudeau had not been fully aware of what had been said in the conversation between the clerk and Wilson-Raybould. You might call that implausible deniability. The weasel word here is “fully.”

Now that the Wernick tape is public, it is obvious that it would have taken a five-second briefing to convey to the PM Wilson-Raybould’s bottom line: She was not happy about the perceived pressure, and she was not going to change her mind.

The tape, and the supporting documents that also went to the justice committee last week, back up Wilson-Raybould’s earlier testimony:

That she tried to protect the PM from appearing to violate the principle of prosecutorial independence; that she felt that the pressure to change the decision on the SNC-Lavalin matter was inappropriate, including the telephone conversation with Wernick; that the Liberals were going to a “dangerous place” when they kept on intruding into an active criminal case that had already left the legal station.

The plain words on the tape explode the heart of the PM’s defence in this story. Trudeau had maintained that if his ex-minister had had a problem with how the government was handling the SNC-Lavalin case, she should have come to him. The “if only I’d known” gambit.

The tape makes crystal clear that Wilson-Raybould did exactly that with the clerk. In fact, Wernick tells Wilson-Raybould on the tape that he would be reporting their conversation to the PM.

The crowning irony of the Wernick tape? On it, the clerk says that the prime minister still thinks there are lawful things Raybould can do to square away the SNC-Lavalin case without a criminal trial.

Think about that. The PM giving legal advice to the very person who, as chief-law-officer of the Crown, is supposed to be giving advice to him. She, the attorney general and lawyer who had already decided the matter; he, the prime minister and former teacher, who wanted that changed.

Besides, Trudeau didn’t have to wait for the briefing that Wernick claims he never gave to know where Wilson-Raybould stood on the SNC-Lavalin case.

Five days before she “took the extraordinary and otherwise inappropriate step” of recording what she believed would be an “inappropriate conversation” with the clerk of the privy council, the attorney general wrote a letter to the prime minister himself. It was a reply to an earlier letter from the PM written on Dec. 6, and received at the Justice Department on Dec. 7.

Trudeau’s letter to his then-attorney general included a copy of a letter that Neil Bruce, SNC-Lavalin’s CEO, had sent to the PM. In that letter, Bruce complained that his company had not been granted negotiations for remediation under Canada’s new Deferred Prosecution Agreement law. He asked for a meeting with the PM at his “earliest convenience.”

It is easy to understand why the CEO would write such a letter. If the company were convicted in the current court case, it could face a 10-year ban on bidding on federal contracts in Canada.

So SNC-Lavalin’s interest in appealing to the PM is obvious. But with a criminal case before the courts, why would Trudeau forward that letter to the attorney general? Did he really think it was okay to personally lean in with the full weight of his office on due process?

After “closely” reading the PM’s letter, Wilson-Raybould replied to him on Dec. 14, 2018. It was an attempt to save a puppy running loose on the Trans Canada.

In part, she wrote “the matters raised in Mr. Bruce’s letter are currently before the courts... the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), which is solely responsible for making decisions with respect to remediation agreements and their applicability in a given case, operates at arms-length and is independent of my Department and my office.”

It was a nice way of telling an interfering PM to buzz off, to let the proper judicial officers do their jobs under the law. Trudeau richly deserved the rebuke.

582px version of JWR post election
Jody Wilson-Raybould, not long after her election to Vancouver Granville in 2015. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

As hills to die on go, Trudeau could have picked a better one than SNC-Lavalin. Although he may think of it as a “signature” Canadian company, that signature has often been corruption.

Abroad, corruption charges in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and a 10-year ban on working on projects financed by the World Bank, the longest debarment period ever agreed to in a World Bank settlement.

Here in Canada, the Libya corruption and bribery charges have already cost the company $88 million. That money was part of the $110 million paid to settle shareholder class action suits arising over allegations of SNC-Lavalin executives misleading investors about the company’s activities in Libya that affected share price.

Judge Claude Leblond is the judge in the matter, the same judge who presided over the corruption case involving SNC-Lavalin and the McGill University Hospital Complex. The preliminary hearing that began Oct. 29, 2018, on the Libya criminal charges ended on April 1. Judge Leblond is expected to decide whether there is enough evidence to go to trial by May 29. The PMO was intruding into the case while it was actually before the courts.

On top of that, there was a recent guilty plea on charges of violations of Canada’s election financing laws involving SNC-Lavalin.

In the latter case, Normand Morin, one of the company’s VPs, pleaded guilty to illegally funneling cash to federal political parties in this country. Morin, who is no longer with the company, had employees make the political “donations.” The company would then reimburse them with phony expenses refunds or bogus bonuses.

As reported by the CBC, during a seven-year period from 2004 to 2011, SNC-Lavalin made illegal political donations of $117,803. The Liberals got all but $8,000 of the money, the balance going to the Conservatives.

Because the case was settled with a plea deal, the evidence was never entered into the public record and the public never found out which leadership candidates, politicians, and riding organizations got the cash.

SNC-Lavalin’s most recent legal problem in Canada arises out of the decision by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, backed by then attorney general Wilson-Raybould, to proceed with a criminal trial against the company because of its activities in Libya.

As reported by the Canadian Press last month, a new proposed class action lawsuit was filed in Ontario Superior Court against the company. The proposed suit claims that SNC-Lavalin failed to disclose in a timely fashion that federal prosecutors had declined to invite the company to negotiate.

The legal action points out that more than a month elapsed from Sept. 4, 2018, the date the company first learned of the prosecutor’s decision not to negotiate a DPA, to Oct. 10, 2018, the date it informed shareholders.

At that time, the share price dropped 14 per cent on the bad legal news. The lawsuit seeks $75 million in damages for investors who acquired SNC-Lavalin stock between Sept. 4 and Oct. 10.

But there is a much graver problem for the Trudeau government than cheerleading for this single, dubious corporate player. Corruption, the exercise of official powers without regard for the public good, exacts a monstrous cost on multiple levels. If the prime minister knows that, he has never mentioned it.

According to data from the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the economic costs of paying bribes to “get a business advantage” are enormous. Every year worldwide, over $1 trillion is paid in bribes.

That means that one dollar out of every $30 of Gross Domestic Product in the world is corruptly paid out in bribes. These bribes add up to 25 per cent to the costs of procurement in developing countries — an inflated bill they can ill afford.

According to the OECD, the social and human costs of corruption greatly exacerbate the economic costs. Greasing palms to get business breaks environmental laws, prevents sustainable development, increases the use of poor construction materials, and leads to the theft and or depletion of natural resources in poor countries. Bottom line? It causes real damage to people, communities, and in the end, to businesses as well.

Presumably, that’s why Canada signed on to the Anti-Corruption Convention in 1998 — that and the fact that Canada has the most entries on the World Bank’s blacklist of corrupt companies, thanks to SNC-Lavalin and the string of other companies they hold.

What should bother Canadians about the PM’s take on this matter is that his stand on SNC-Lavalin is not just a one-off. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was the first federal leader to argue that Trudeau is not the champion of the middle class he claims to be, but rather a consistent corporate cheerleader. He talks the talk for the environment, Indigenous rights, and human rights; but for Big Business, he walks the walk.

Canadians saw Trudeau the corporate cheerleader in Houston, where he told a group of Texas oilmen that no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.

They saw the same thing when the PM dismissed the solid opposition of coastal British Columbians to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, and instead paid the Texas oil company $4.3 billion for this leaky relic and vowed to get the expansion to tidewater.

They saw it again on Canada’s East Coast, where Trudeau denied that Ottawa had environmental jurisdiction over a project that plans to dump toxic pollutants from a kraft pulp mill owned by Northern Pulp into prime fishing grounds in the Northumberland Strait.

And now, they see it once more with the PM and his minions interfering in an active criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin. That violates the heart of the judicial system: the complete independence of the prosecution service under the law.

If, as Singh has argued, the SNC-Lavalin scandal outs the prime minister as a corporate enabler, and not the champion of the middle class he claims to be, it has also sunk the Liberal caucus to a new low.

In their lust to protect their own myopic, political self-interest, the caucus put the wrong end of the telescope to its collective eye. As a result, they have identified the wrong culprit.

It was the former attorney-general, Wilson-Raybould, who protected the government from the potentially deadly charge of interfering in a criminal case the way potentates do in corrupt Third-World countries. It was the PM and his over-zealous operatives who put the government in jeopardy by trying to violate the independence of the prosecution service, and arguably obstructing justice.

Yet not a peep out of the Liberal lemmings about the PM tampering with the criminal justice process. Instead, general apoplexy about the former attorney general having recorded a conversation with the clerk of the privy council without his knowledge. That is like screeching about a leaky faucet while the house is on fire.

There is only one more mistake Trudeau can make on this file — reverse the decision of the prosecution service and offer SNC-Lavalin a Deferred Prosecution Agreement under the very law the company lobbied so hard to get.

Donald Trump got his way in the rollout of the Mueller Report by finding the right attorney general for the job. Equipped with a brand new attorney general, Trudeau can do the same thing if he chooses.

If he does, he’d better book the moving van now.  [Tyee]

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