Trudeau is on the ropes, but can NDP provide a viable, progressive alternative?

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 Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with media in the Foyer of the House of Commons. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

The politics of the SNC-Lavalin affair cut many ways.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have betrayed his promise of open and transparent government, but is unwavering in defending his government's support for jobs, especially in Quebec.

Conservatives and their leader Andrew Scheer hypocritically decry the Trudeau government's willingness to conflate the interests of the Liberal party with those of the country. They did exactly the same, and worse, when in power.

New Democrats and their newly elected leader Jagmeet Singh say all the right things, but show little sensitivity to concerns of their erstwhile voters in Quebec, and have not yet put any serious policy meat on the bones of their outraged rhetoric.

More on all that later.

What is fascinating about the SNC-Lavalin/Jody Wilson-Raybould affair is that nobody directly involved disputes any of the facts now on the record.

On Wednesday, February 27, the former justice minister and attorney general told the Commons justice committee how, over a period of months, a number of cabinet colleagues and senior officials applied intense pressure on her to overrule the director of public prosecutions' decision not to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to the Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, in a case of bribery of a foreign government.

Those who applied the pressure include the senior federal civil servant, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick; Minister of Finance Bill Morneau; the prime minister's senior political official, Principal Secretary Gerald Butts; and Prime Minister Trudeau himself.

Wilson-Raybould said she believes all of those interveners frequently and flagrantly crossed the line from legitimate advocacy and concern for jobs to inappropriate interference.

The former minister cited: the clerk's arguments that she had to be mindful of the imminent Quebec election and the possibility of SNC-Lavalin moving its head office out of Canada; the prime minister reminding her that he was the MP for a Montreal riding; Butts telling her to ignore provisions of the 2006 law that created the public prosecutor's office because he did not like the law (to which she replied, "it's the only law we have"); and Butts' colleague Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff, assuring Wilson-Raybould she did not have to worry about taking a legally dubious course of action because the government would give her cover by planting supportive op-ed articles in major newspapers.

Liberal leadership says it was all a misunderstanding

Wilson-Raybould made a powerful and devastating case, supported by her detailed and precise recollections.

The prime minister did not contradict a single thing she said. He only argued that she had interpreted her interactions with him and other senior officials wrongly.

After Wilson-Raybould spoke for more than three hours, Justin Trudeau, who happened to be at an event in Montreal, told reporters his overriding concern in this entire affair was for the thousands of jobs at stake, and the potential economic impact if those jobs were jeopardized.  His government, he assured Canadians, upheld the principle of the rule of law and the independence of those officials tasked with implementing it. But it also cared deeply about Canadians' prosperity and economic well-being. As with the environment and the economy, there need not, apparently, be a contradiction between the two.

The message from the prime minister and other senior Liberals is that it is all a misunderstanding. Wilson-Raybould simply misconstrued a legitimate concern for the economic consequences of a course of action for inappropriate pressure or interference in a federal prosecution.

Wilson-Raybould believes she wore two hats. As justice minister, her role was political; she was responsible for shepherding legislation through Parliament. As attorney general, however, she had to enforce and uphold the law in a non-partisan way, not allowing political considerations to interfere.  

The prime minister, his staff and fellow ministers considered Wilson-Raybould to be, in essence, another elected politician, a cabinet minister like all the others. And virtually everything that comes before cabinet and its ministers has a political dimension.

In Quebec, the fate of SNC-Lavalin is at least potentially a big political issue. The company is a vitally important economic player. It is one of the few major international corporations headquartered in Quebec, and it is good at what it does. The city of Ottawa just selected SNC-Lavalin to build a big section of its light rail -- despite the company's record of corrupt dealings. In short, SNC-Lavalin is a source of pride to most Quebeckers.

The way this story plays out in Quebec is a key political preoccupation for the Trudeau government. That story is fraught with peril for the Liberals who hold the majority of seats in Quebec and aspire to win more in the coming election.

To get better insight into those political hazards just consider the reaction of the Bloc Québécois to Wilson-Raybould's testimony.

After the former minister testified, the Bloc came out with a statement. It did not, like the other opposition parties, condemn the Liberal government for interfering with a judicial process. Instead the Bloc complained bitterly that Wilson-Raybould point blank refused to explain why she would not offer a legal break to SNC-Lavalin, in the form of a remediation agreement rather than a criminal prosecution.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet said Wilson-Raybould knew her choice not to offer the deal could mean the company would move its head office from Montreal to London, resulting in big job losses in Quebec, but nonetheless decided to do nothing. Blanchet and his fellow Bloquistes reiterated their view that SNC-Lavalin's Montreal head office and the jobs associated with it should not "disappear because of the actions of a few individuals who are no longer with the company."

Like other opposition politicians, Bloc members and their leader deplore the fact that the Liberal government mishandled the affair and turned it into a conflict between the prime minister and his attorney general. But their overriding concern is with SNC-Lavalin's 3,600 employees in Quebec, and with the many more jobs associated with the company's sub-contractors and suppliers. Quebec workers are the main victims of this sorry affair, Bloquistes say.

Nobody else on the opposition side is making a similar case.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called on the prime minister to resign, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh reiterated his call for a full-blown inquiry.

The Conservatives deplore the prime minister's coziness with a Liberal-friendly company and his notional disrespect for an independent prosecutorial process.

New Democrats say that while everyday Canadians are suffering, the prime minister is all too ready to cut deals with his influential corporate friends. They do not shed a tear for the many everyday Canadians who might be innocent victims of a criminal conviction for SNC-Lavalin.

Governing in the old-fashioned way backfired on Trudeau

The Liberal government had hoped to sort out the affair in a typical backroom, non-transparent way. The current chair of SNC-Lavalin, Kevin Lynch, is the former clerk of the Privy Council. He and his associates did what comes naturally to members of Canada's corporate, bureaucratic and political elite. When trouble loomed on the horizon, they lobbied their friends in Ottawa, relentlessly and behind close doors.

Trudeau had promised to run a different kind of government, one in which cabinet ministers would be in charge of their dossiers and where decisions would be taken in the open. But when push came to shove, the prime minister resorted to the tried-and-true playbook.

His behaviour on this matter was similar to his handling of electoral reform. His firm and unequivocal commitment that the next election would not be fought under first-past-the-post dissolved when the cynical and notionally realistic old guard Liberals convinced him he would never win another majority under a reformed voting system.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, on SNC-Lavalin he ran into an immutable barrier in Wilson-Raybould.

The former minister not only strictly interpreted her duty under the law, she was already frustrated with the government's slow and halting progress on pressing Indigenous matters that are dear to her heart.   

For the voters who put Trudeau in office -- and even those who voted NDP or Green, but much preferred the hopeful and at least progressive-sounding Liberals to the Conservatives -- the whole affair presents a depressing dilemma.

Scheer and his well-prepared and articulate front benchers such as Lisa Raitt seem to be gaining the most political traction from this snowballing scandal.

The Conservatives have conveniently put aside the fact that they were as cozy with corporate lobbyists as are the Liberals when they were in power. They allowed the oil and gas industry to virtually write their weak and ineffectual rules on greenhouse gases, for instance.

Conservatives also governed in a behind-closed-doors, non-transparent way, conflating the interests of their party with those of the country -- exactly what they accuse Trudeau of doing now. And they used parliamentary subterfuge, via massive omnibus budget implementation bills, to ram through huge and consequential pieces of legislation. The Liberals' resort to that tactic to pass the deferred prosecution measure is child's play compared to the Conservative record.

Despite all that, Scheer manages to look severe, sincere and confident as he calls for Trudeau to step down, and patriotically evokes the interests of the country at this crucial juncture.

By contrast, NDP Leader Singh looks callow and unprepared. He utters predictable clichés, but offers no specific policy options and displays little understanding of the complexity of the issue at hand, with its multiple economic, legal and political implications.

NDP must step up -- and offer progressive voters a real choice

What is most important about the current disarray of the Liberals is not that it offers a partisan political opportunity to opposition parties, including the NDP. Rather, the current crisis calls upon those in the progressive opposition to step up and offer a credible alternative to a Liberal government that has not kept faith with its electors.

For the NDP, the imperative of the current crisis is more an issue of responsibility than crass political opportunity.

Canadians deserve a viable alternative to the wounded Trudeau government other than the not-very-comforting Harper Conservatives, led by Scheer.

To position themselves as that progressive alternative, NDPers have to do more than call for an independent inquiry. They have to formulate clear, muscular, well-formulated -- and perhaps outside-the-box -- policy proposals.

For instance, what should the federal government do if SNC-Lavalin were to become a target for foreign takeover, perhaps piece by piece. Is there any course of action that would save jobs and expertise, and protect shareholders, other than in effect condoning corporate criminality by letting the company off the hook for serious crimes committed overseas?

What about some form of public, cooperative or community ownership? The Quebec government's public pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement, already owns a significant chunk of SNC-Lavalin's publicly traded shares. Would it now be a good idea for the federal government to enter into talks with the Quebec government about a possible joint federal-provincial effort to transform SNC-Lavalin into some sort of entirely publicly owned entity? That is the sort of bold and creative thinking a focused and serious progressive party should be doing right now.

Singh and his colleagues now have to lift up their game. They have to get beyond slogans and start proposing solutions. They must do so in the interests not so much of their party as of their country.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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