What a jolly ethical scandal we are having in Canadian politics. Normally these affairs are pretty grim. But when the Liberal administration of Justin Trudeau got caught trying to pervert the course of justice, people actually cared about the morality of it. Plus, we’re watching identity politics swallow its own tail. So it’s win-win.
In case the entire world isn’t as fixated on Canada’s navel as we think, here’s the backstory.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, our former Minister of Justice and Attorney General (two jobs lamentably not separated here), was put under enormous pressure to tell her Director of Public Prosecutions to offer engineering giant SNC-Lavalin a “Deferred Prosecution Agreement”. This would have let it pay a fine and escape criminal charges over bribery of Muammar Gadhafi’s loathsome son Saadi and others in Libya, part of an alleged pattern of such conduct abroad and even at home.
Canadian law does permit such “DPAs”, because the Liberals slipped them into the fine print of its 2018 “omnibus” budget-and-everything-else bill after SNC-Lavalin lobbied relentlessly for it. And gave the Liberals illegal campaign contributions. (Those familiar with Canadian politics will have guessed it’s a Quebec firm.)
OK, a bit more background. Our Prime Minister is the Most Sensitive Man in the World, young, sexy, feminist, climate-conscious, with totally cool socks. Rolling Stone even put a smouldering shot of him on its August 10, 2017 cover asking “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”
Lately he’s been coming a bit unglued, including a bizarre February 2018 tour of India where he played Mr Dressup Meets Cultural Appropriation in traditional Indian clothes with his family. Nobody knows why. But for a long time he was a progressive darling who appointed half female ministers to his first cabinet back in 2015 “because it’s 2015” as he famously if glibly explained.
Among them was Ms Wilson-Raybould, a.k.a. JWR, former crown prosecutor and British Columbia Treaty Commissioner before becoming Canada’s first aboriginal Justice Minister and Attorney General. Now opinions are divided on her performance in those posts, from her grasp of the law to her impartiality in cases with aboriginal plaintiffs.
But on the question of a DPA for a favoured Liberal firm she stood firm. And faced escalating pressure from senior staff in the office of the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Trudeau’s Principal Secretary and alter ego Gerald Butts and the Clerk of the Privy Council (head of Canada’s public service) Michael Wernick, who in a notorious phone call on December 17 hinted pretty blatantly that if she didn’t order her DPP to grant SNC a DPA PDQ she would be O-U-T.
She didn’t and was promptly shuffled from Justice to the career black hole of Veterans’ Affairs after refusing Indigenous Services because she hates our Indian Act, a terrible, archaic piece of legislation nobody can agree on how to replace.
Well, that’s what she said.
Everybody from the Prime Minister to Butts to Wernick denied it. The Prime Minister said her willingness to remain in cabinet as Minister of Veterans’ Affairs “spoke for itself” about her confidence in him. So she immediately stepped down, saying “I trust my resignation speaks for itself”. Then Butts suddenly quit, saying his total innocence made it essential that he get out of Dodge to protect the PM.
Wernick, too, retired abruptly after disastrous back-to-back performances before the House of Commons Justice Committee, whose Liberal majority tied itself in knots to prevent JWR from responding to their testimony. But Trudeau still denied everything except the stuff he gradually admitted. Including the classic insistence that he hadn’t been briefed on the December 17 phone call about an issue Wernick insisted was crucial to the PM because everybody went on Christmas vacation instead.
To borrow a classic phrase from the comic strip Doonesbury, “unfortunately she was also wired for sound”. When her veracity was questioned and her character attacked in a series of smears as comically inept as they were nasty, from her inability to speak French to being a puppet of her father to being difficult to conspiring to become Prime Minister to seeking to appoint an alleged homophobe as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, she produced… oh dear… an audio recording of that December 17 conversation with Wernick.
She was promptly denounced as not a team player and expelled from caucus along with Dr Jane Philpott, former minister of health who also quit cabinet in solidary with JWR. And the Prime Minister, who long insisted that the latter never expressed concerns to him about the barrage of pressure, called recording the call “unconscionable” while brushing aside its content. Then he blurted out in Parliament that contrary to his repeated denials she had asked him firmly to back off back in September, while retreating into his habitual relativism when cornered, as also when accused of having groped a waitress before entering politics.
Sorry, it’s a long story.
But politics is complicated which is why political scandals and jokes tend to be as well (like William Jennings Bryan’s nickname “the boy orator of the Platte” being flipped back at him with the quip that like that Nebraska river he was a mile wide at the mouth and six inches deep.) And if I detailed all the implausible evasions and mudslinging it would be twice as long.
But while political scandals, lies, shifting stories, and the fine art of arm-twisting with a nudge and subtle emphasis not a foolishly explicit memo are old news, and frequently very dreary, this one is going very well indeed for the two reasons mentioned above.
In the first place, people care. They really care. The Liberals were plunging in the polls even before the latest PR disaster of expelling JWR from caucus and admitting past lies with Trudeau’s habitual mix of soulful gaze and juvenile smirk. And it’s only going to get worse. As it must if we are to establish that judicial independence isn’t an empty phrase, and that we Canadians will not roll over when politicos break rules, even if they give us money to distract us (in the latest budget and other handouts).
In the second, it’s not just conservatives and Conservatives, two often distinct groups, who are outraged. They’ve always hated Trudeau, and his father, with a justified passion that too often rendered them incoherently apoplectic. But now progressives are appalled too.
In a scene too rich for satire, somebody brought a bunch of 18 to 23-year-old “Daughters of the Vote” to sit in Parliament and hear adults who should know better pander to them about the voice of youth, the future, diversity and the usual guff. A bunch of these precious SJWs walked out on Official Opposition leader Andrew Scheer because he’s a yucky conservative and at the ripe age of 19 they already know everything about everything. But when Trudeau came to speak some turned their backs on him too before screeching things like “You cannot be a feminist if you are allowing corporations to rape the land, because as Indigenous peoples, that is our mother”.
As Edmund Burke rightly observed of leftist factionalism in the French Revolution, “Birds of prey are not gregarious.” And practitioners of identity politics deserve one another. But it is encouraging to see that they are putting their money where their mouths are about integrity even if Trudeau’s choice of an intersectional victim made it easy.
To be frank, Wilson-Raybould herself has a tiresome habit of trotting out identity politics at every opportunity including strongly implying that Trudeau et al would not have treated a white man the way they treated her. After several years in their company you’d think she’d know better. They’d run roughshod over anyone for partisan advantage, straight, gay, male, female, white, black or purple with seven tentacles.
And while JWR may not have been the ideal Attorney-General or Justice Minister, on this key issue she stood up to extreme, improper pressure of a sort all too common in politics-as-usual, and did what had to be done to combat and expose it.
The final delicious element in the drama is that Trudeau himself could not be more clueless even now. In a televised address to his caucus about expelling JWR and Philpott that my fellow National Post columnist Andrew Coyne rightly labeled “grotesque”, Trudeau stressed the need not to revert to the ugly days of Liberal party infighting because “Civil wars within parties are incredibly damaging because they signal to Canadians that we care more about ourselves than we do about them.”
To him it’s all just PR. Ethical considerations couldn't have been further from his mind if they’d been on Ganymede. Which if he had his way they probably would be. As for practical ones, Lord Melbourne famously if not upliftingly once told his cabinet something to the effect that “I don’t care what d**ned lie we must tell; but not a man of you shall leave this room until we have all agreed to tell the same d**ned lie.”
Trudeau hasn’t even got that much cunning let alone character… or a cheat sheet reminding him what lies he already told. But he has so much conceit he actually thinks he doesn’t need it, and can commit any misdeed he likes and excuse it with any fiction he fancies at any given moment.
It’s not working. The populace at large, and engaged people across the political spectrum, think he’s been bending the law if not breaking it, bullying people and lying. And they think it’s wrong. And they care.
So for once we’re having a jolly time here with a political scandal.
John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.