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April 14, 2019

Why the SNC-Lavalin affair could cost Justin Trudeau the October election and his Liberal leadership

The Canadian Charger

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is suffering a major hangover - without the help of alcohol beforehand.

Why? France’s first prime minister, the diplomat and secular cleric Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), said it best: “It is worse than a crime.  It is a mistake.”

So, what was the mistake that is turning out to be even worse than a crime?

In a nutshell, the Trudeau government quietly inserted into an omnibus budget bill (of all places!), an unprecedented provision allowing companies charged with crimes to avoid prosecution through a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), but only if approved by the Attorney General.

From the sequence of events that followed, the timing of this move was suspicious, to say the least. 

Trudeau wanted SNC-Lavalin – a major Quebec-based construction company with tens of thousands of employees – to be granted a DPA.

Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould objected, backing her office’s Director of Public Prosecutions in denying the arrangement. She maintained, and continues to do so as an Independent MP, that the Prime Minister’s Office was politically interfering in the Canadian justice system and asked that Trudeau "apologize to Canadians for his mistake".

SNC-Lavalin was, and still is, facing charges of bribery and corruption over its methods of obtaining lucrative contracts in Libya. Among other things, it is alleged that SNC arranged to have the late dictator Mouammar Gadhafi’s son supplied with prostitutes as part of the company’s successful efforts to land such a contract.

A Deferred Prosecution Agreement does not dismiss charges or get a defendant company “off the hook,” but allows the courts to defer charges (whose outcome might bankrupt or close the company in question) if the company carries out specific remedial actions. In this case, the elephant in the room is the number of jobs, and potential Liberal votes, that SNC-Lavalin represents.

Yet the legislation also specifies that the prosecution “must not consider national economic interest.”  In spite of this clear contradiction Trudeau, personally and through a number of subordinates, repeatedly badgered Wilson-Raybould as AG to grant a DPA to SNC-Lavalin, arguing that jobs were at stake, SNC’s viability was at stake, or that the company might leave Canada altogether. 

If the company were to face criminal prosecution and the resulting penalties of a guilty verdict, the resulting job losses would have a major impact on Trudeau’s own riding and his electoral future. Nevertheless, Wilson-Raybould stood by the law and by her principles, refusing to budge. And she rightly complained about being pressured and badgered by unelected PMO staff.

In January, Trudeau removed Wilson-Raybould from her dual post as Minister of Justice and Attorney General and demoted her to Veterans Affairs. 

For a brief time, everything seemed smoothed over, with Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould declaring in public that the new post was not actually a demotion. But Trudeau wouldn’t leave well enough alone. His insinuations that the former Attorney General was in harmonious agreement with him proved too much for her patience and came back to bite him in the derrière.

On February 12, Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet, followed closely by colleague Dr. Jane Philpott, who resigned from her post as President of the Treasury Board, declaring that she had no confidence in Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. 

Then the next shoe dropped.  On April 2, both women were drummed out of the Liberal caucus and had their credentials as Liberal candidates in the next election withdrawn.

As can be expected, ever since the Globe and Mail first broke the story on February 7, all of the opposition parties have been playing the SNC-Lavalin mess for everything it’s worth.

On March 29, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer issued a statement accusing Trudeau of political interference, of lying to Canadians and of corrupt conduct. Less than two days later, Scheer was handed a lawsuit in which the prime minister’s lawyer called the statements false and defamatory. Scheer and his party’s response has been in effect to bring it on as the Conservative leader is standing by his accusations.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons has not been able to address its budget bill due to a filibuster on the issue launched by Conservative MP Pierre Poilièvre. The matter has been to the Justice Committee of the House; the Ethics Commissioner is investigating it; even the Senate may step in. And the Working Group on Bribery within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also expressed concern about possible political interference.

Trudeau very much wants this controversy go away, but the cashiering of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott definitely will not do it. 

Now Trudeau’s new Attorney General David Lametti has a hopeless decision to make – deliver Trudeau the DPA he wants or, like his precursor, refuse. If he opts for the DPA the move could be seen as giving in to pressure and confirming the charge by Wilson-Raybould and her supporters that Trudeau inappropriately interfered in the SNC-Lavalin case. On the other hand, if Lametti stands by Wilson-Raybould’s decision, it will raise further questions as to why she was removed in the first place.

The attention this case has drawn will not dissipate any time soon. The Liberals will be wearing it like a smelly shirt for months to come and when the October election rolls around, this mistake-worse-than-a-crime could well cost Trudeau the election and even his party leadership.

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