After two weeks of the SNC/PMO scandal, today brought us the first chance to hear directly from a voice in this debate that we hadn’t heard yet. The House of Commons Justice Committee had it’s first meeting to hear testimony into this whole matter. While the first hour was rather pedestrian and predictable, what came in the second panel was really anything but.
First up was the new Justice Minister David Lametti for the first hour, and most of his testimony involved trying to tell us all that nothing was wrong, everything was done right and oh, if you have any real questions, he can’t answer them because of privilege (we’ll get back to that later). The hour didn’t bring much new fodder or grist for the mill, except for a deleted tweet from a Liberal MP that kind spoke to how the time might have been better spent:
While the first hour went about as predicted as it could have been, hour two was something else. In that block, we heard from the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. Having spent nine years at House of Commons committees, I actually had the lowest expectations for Mr. Wernick’s testimony, and that has nothing to do with him or his work. I felt that way because typically committee testimony by civil servants usually tends to be amongst the most un-eventful meetings simply because civil servants do not and are not supposed to engage in partisanry. They usually try to steer clear of opining on anything and tend to stay very close to the facts or talking points. So, with that in mind, I was expecting that we should surely get that from the top civil servant in the country. Well…….
Yeah, that’s what happened, and it set the tone for the remainder of the meeting. It was something the likes of which we had never really seen (for good reason by the way) but brought a little bit of something for both sides to grasp onto. For the government, this was probably the most vibrant defence of the government and their approach in this scandal, which must have made their benches feels a bit better. But the fact that it came from the one person who probably shouldn’t have been so partisan spoke loudly to the situation and to what the government has failed to do for itself. In his answers, Wernick seemed confident and gave his side of things, which will give the government information to work with as they play defence going ahead.
But for everything that Wernick gave the government, he took even more from them and gave it to the Opposition. In the process, Wernick raised more questions but also helped to get us closer to answering more of the questions that were sitting out there. Let’s start with the whole concept of privilege, which the Prime Minister and government says they have and won’t waive. Well Wernick blew a big hole into that boat:
That was a very strong statement and didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room there for interpretation. Given the amount of nuance that he tried to use in other answers, that speaks all the more strongly here. He was even asked who gave the PM his advice on the whole privilege matter and all Wernick would say is that it didn’t come from his office. Interesting indeed. The next thing that Wernick gave was a crucial comment on the whole crux of this story; the alleged pressure put on Jody Wilson-Raybould. He was asked this question by NDP MP Murray Rankin about just this, and it brought this answer, later followed by another expansive explanation of what he meant in a scrum later:
Wait, “I’m sure that she felt pressure to get it right?” What exactly does “right” mean in this case? That was just too slick for slickness and as usual, Andrew Coyne gave the best quip to get right to the nub of it all:
Folks, that’s pressure beyond the usual pressure any cabinet minister feels. Yes, all cabinet ministers feel pressure because their decisions have consequences (shocker, I know). But that’s exactly why there are provisions in law and practice that people are not supposed to pressure the Attorney General. And you’ll notice that I didn’t say “unduly pressure”, I said “pressure”. You don’t get to add extra pressure to that person to sway their decision one way or another, and that seems to be exactly what Wernick laid out in his December conversation with Wilson-Raybould, three whole months after the prosecutors said “No” to this idea. He talks about the “context” of the decision, the potential economic impacts and all of that, and somehow didn’t expect that to be construed as extra pressure? Of course, it would, especially after a decision was taken months ago. Why bring that up unless you’re looking for someone to change their mind about the past decision?
Even if you want to look at this as all kosher and above board, there is one big monkey wrench to throw into this; under the law that this government passed last year that allowed this to be done, it expressly states that “the prosecutor must not consider the national economic interest, the potential effect on relations with a state other than Canada, or the identity of the organization or individual involved.” So yeah, Wernick gave Wilson-Raybould all this extra “context” about the situation, but even if she wanted to, the law states she couldn’t even consider it. So even if she wanted to, how could they even use this mechanism to get SNC off?
After Wernick’s testimony and scrum, you can see a clearer picture of what Jody Wilson-Raybould might have been feeling or at least taking away from all these conversations. I know that if someone came up to me and gave me “context” like that, I wouldn’t have taken it as some benign conversation about the virtues of SNC. When you add to that testimony the nugget that came out of the new Globe and Mail story today about SNC threatening to move to the UK (which sounds crazy given all the Brexit insanity), one thing is very clear; SNC was throwing every single thing it had at the government wall and was hoping that it would stick (or maybe bust through it).
Folks, that’s real pressure and when you then get the top civil servant in the country, who directly serves the PM, come to you and give you “context” like that, that’s even more pressure. That’s the kind of pressure that you feel deep down and cause you to lose sleep at night, so adjectives like “undue” don’t matter a darn in this conversation. It’s true that “heavy is the head that wears the crown”, but that doesn’t mean it’s alright for the PMO to add a few more bricks of pressure on top of it. There are still many questions to be answered here but todays testimony from Michael Wernick has brought us the most progress we’ve seen so far. Next week we’ll get to hear from Jody Wilson-Raybould herself and we’ll see what she has to say. But after today, you can’t help but feel there will be a lot more clarity around this scandal by this time next week. Stay tuned everyone.