Moral questions remain in SNC-Lavalin affair

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Parliament Hill. Photo: Viola Ng/Flickr

SNC-Lavalin etc.: some vague musings in lieu of sweeping judgments:

  • Why didn't Jody Wilson-Raybould tell uber-civil servant Michael Wernick that she was taping him? It clearly irked the Liberal caucus as they whisked her and Jane Philpott out the door. Was she inexcusably devious?

Her own lines sound like they're for posterity, not Wernick. Like: "This is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like breaching a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence." It's rhetorical, not conversational. Even in text exchanges that Gerry Butts revealed, when she mentions Indigenous issues, it's in generalities. "This is not about me -- believe me when I say this -- but this is about an approach to Indigenous Peoples."

Wernick, OTOH, sounds impressively upright for someone who doesn't know he's being taped and isn't speaking for history's benefit. He says the PM's doing "everything he can within the legitimate tool box to try to head that off … he does not want to do anything outside the box of what is legal or proper …" Honourable, not thuggish. But hold on, shouldn't we assume he also knows they're on tape? Why? Because he's probably taping her too! In Ottawa, surely everyone tapes everyone. If they didn't before, they will from now on.

The ex-AG does have less stentorian, more personal moments, but they're mostly about not wanting to lose what Butts says was her "dream job." ("I am waiting for big ... the other shoe to drop ... so I am not under any illusion how the prime minister has and gets things that he wants.") Is spontaneity breaking through here, or is this also calculated? It's exhausting, thinking like this.

Maybe people under public pressure need a formal method that lets them sometimes faff around (a term I learned from the Brexit logorrhea) without fear of being played back to the universe. They could develop a secret handsign known only to them meaning: MUTUAL RECORDING TIMEOUT STARTING … NOW!

  • I'm not big on abstract moral principles like truth, justice or rule of law. I did grad courses in ethics but even Kant (The Great One) went vague at that height: he advised, roughly, Try To Do The Right Thing. (The one unambiguously good thing is the will to do good. Act in ways that could be a model for anyone. Treat others as ends not means). So, IMO, simply genuflecting to the rule of law or a "principle" of "prosecutorial independence" -- doesn't get you very far.

I find it more fruitful to discuss moral issues by examining specific effects on people or groups in particular pickles: like poverty, discrimination, schooling, rigged criminal charges, false convictions, etc. The loftier implications -- as discussed interminably by pundits or legal experts, sound ethereal and nebulous by contrast: overly intellectualized, as if part of being a certified commenter means establishing your moral superiority by way of a special vocab that only you fully understand and deploy. Hmm, that sounds vague itself.

So take the question, Should SNC-Lavalin get a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) versus going to trial? If you siphon out the abstract issue of prosecutorial independence, which JWR went to the wall on, then you're left with a concrete problem: how much good or ill is done by giving SNC its DPA? There are solid arguments on both sides but they're not definitive -- people can differ on them.

Maybe you decide to judge for or against on the basis of lost jobs -- if you believe SNC's claims. Or you conclude that you'd rather strike a blow against bribery, corruption and corporate power. I prefer focusing on issues like those, vs. Higher Principles, since we live in a world where what happens usually hangs not on abstractions but on the actual individuals involved: judges, cops, crowns ...

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Viola Ng/Flickr

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