Yesterday turned out to be a much bigger day than most of us thought it would be when we all woke up on a lazy mid-August day. Ottawa has been so quiet this summer as everyone focuses on the fall campaign and gets ready to go, yet yesterdays news on the LavScam front took care of that silence. The blunt and detailed report from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion not only brought forward a decision on where the blame lays in this case, it also brought new details that hadn’t come to light that makes this all look worse. But back to that in a bit.
Later in the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the media in Niagara-on-the-Lake and gave his response to the report. That response is one that I think will loom large over the election to come:
I’ve said it in the past and I said it on CFRA on Tuesday; the fact that he refuses to apologize here and accept the blame for what happened here speaks loudly to him and his personality, and not in a good way. This response was just a bad defence and really undercut everything else he said when he said that he “accepts the findings” and that “the bucks stops with me”. You can’t say that you disagree with the core of the findings while credibly saying that you are responsible. If you’re responsible, you’re responsible for all of it, period.
The other part of that response that felt so tone deaf to me was trying to use the “I’m saving jobs here” argument that he’s used since the early days of this scandal. Of course that line came after he denied anything happened, then said something might have happened and then said it was all about Jody Wilson-Raybould. Having multiple “stories” never helps your credibility too it should be noted.
But back to the jobs rationale, this simply doesn’t pass because it’s all built on an extremely flawed premise; that breaking the law is alright if you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re motives are pure, then the means that you use to achieve them are already, regardless of their legality. That is just pure garbage and insulting on it’s face. If a starving person breaks into a grocery store and steals food, is it a legal defence to say “I was starving, so it was alright for me to do this so I could feed my family”? It’s not. It may be a moral defence, but legally it would never fly in a court because while it is awful and morally wrong that this family is starving, in our society we don’t allow people to break the law to correct that moral issue. We use other resources, like food banks, social programs and other services to help address that issue.
In this case, there were other options at the disposal for SNC-Lavalin in the courts to fight this case and the Prime Ministers office knew that. It wasn’t “DPA or Bust”, yet in this case they chose to take what they saw as the fasted route, even thought it wasn’t legally or ethically right to do so. The stated goal at the end of this (however dubious) did not, does not and never would justify the means. Period.
On top of those facts we saw new details come out about this story that really show just how far down that road they really went, to the point where it looks shadier than it did at first. Some other pieces out there today go into greater detail about who was involved and how, but it’s still very striking to see. It made me think about that excuse about jobs and when I heard it, I couldn’t help but think of another quote from the past that seems to match the sentiment the Prime Minister was putting out yesterday:
A comparison to Richard Nixon isn’t flattering at the best of times, and even worse at times like these, but the quote is apt for this moment. Essentially the Prime Minister is saying that the ends justify the means, and that’s what Nixon was getting at way back then. When it comes to our criminal justice system, we know that’s not the case and this is the crucial mistake that the Prime Minister made in the past, continues to make today and I assume he will continue to make right through election day.
But in the end here this story all comes back to a very simple concept of political work, one that Mr. Dion pointed to in his report. He stated that Mr. Trudeau was “vicariously liable” for what his staff did in his name, even if Mr. Trudeau didn’t do it all by himself. When you work in politics for an elected official, one of the things that you learn fast is that your work is not your own and the same goes for your actions. You are an extension of your boss and what you do or say, good or bad, is always going to be ascribed to them. It’s going to be treated as their words and their work. There’s really good reason for that, because at the end of the day it’s that elected person whose name is on the ballot, they are the one who got elected and they are the one who is directly accountable to their constituents. They are management in this case, and they bare that responsibility.
And there’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I’d argue that’s exactly how it should be. So if that’s true for a back bench MP, how is it that wouldn’t at least be equally true for the elected leader of the whole government? We wouldn’t accept it if a random MP from nowhere tried to pin all the blame on their staff so why would it be alright for the bloody Prime Minister to do it? That’s actually the opposite of “the buck stops here”, which goes to show just how nonsensical yesterday naya-culpa was.
Time will tell just how this will all affect the fall campaign but yesterdays “Sorry, not Sorry” display has the potential to be just as effective as it was the last time an Liberal Leader tried using those words in Ontario. The fact is that when you sign up to be Prime Minister of Canada, you are signing up to take all of the credit and all the blame; that what taking responsibility really means. Mr. Dion’s report has Mr. Trudeau dead to rites on this matter and the smart thing would be for him to accept that completely, without any exceptions, and try showing some real contrition. But if past behaviour is any indication, that’s just not going to happy here. Justin Trudeau has no problem saying “I’m sorry” when he’s apologizing for others, but when it comes to his own actions, those words seem to disappear from his vocabulary. After four years we now know that’s not a bug of his leadership, it’s a feature, one that might be too late to correct.