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Spring Rumours

One thing that is consistent about politics just about anywhere in the World at any level is the rumours; people love a good political rumour and in this digital age, they can come from anywhere. With the House of Commons Justice Committee coming back to meet today to talk about the PMO/SNC Scandal again, there have been lots of thoughts and rumours about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might do to get out of the mess he finds himself in.

And let’s be clear, he and his government are in a mess right now, one that doesn’t seem to have a simple, quick or easy way out of it. That has led some to say that bigger, more drastic measures may be required here. Given that the Prime Ministers Principle Secretary, his closest confidant, already resigned to try to quell this story, there aren’t many heads big enough left to role to end this. At this point, all that remains are the Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick or the PM himself; anyone below those two won’t cut it.

So the options basically now come down to one of two basic principles of human survival: fight or flight. Given that the PM refuses to apologize and accept full responsibility for this whole episode, he seems to have closed the door on a third option. The flight option is straight forward: resignation. Some people astutely pointed out that a couple weeks ago we had the 35th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s famous “walk in the snow” that lead to his retirement from politics, saying that maybe it is time for Justin to follow those footsteps too. That’s one choice.

The other choice is to fight, something that the Prime Minister and his team have seemed to be very reluctant to do, for good reason. The publics sympathy has not been with the Prime Minister and has firmly been with Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; any attempt to attack them has blown up in their faces, leading to a public apology to Wilson-Raybould from the PM for the anonymous attacks against her. And we’ve since seen the public response to attacks from people defending the PM, like Sheila Copps, which to be kind, haven’t helped the PMs cause.

So if the option is going to be a fight, the PM needs to find a venue for that fight that is to his advantage and that helps him get past this situation. What might that option be? Well Mike Cohen of “The Suburban” (which bills itself as Quebec’s largest English-language weekly newspaper) offers this juicy rumour to the table:

Of “fighting” options, calling a snap election would surely be one, but not one without risk. Remember Parliament has long since passed fixed date elections laws in the spirit of preventing exactly this kind of idea. On top of that, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives decided to drop the writ a month early last time, leading to one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history, the whole Opposition, including the Liberals, rightly attacked the move as cynical and unethical.

When you add the Liberals broken promise on electoral reform from that campaign, deciding to pull the fire alarm and call an early election to get out of this would come at a political cost that wouldn’t be insignificant. It would look at least as unethical as Harper, but probably more given everything that’s swirling around this. But maybe the calculus here is that there is no way out of this without any damage and that maybe going to the people for a mandate to save SNC jobs is the best of a bad set of choices.

All that being said, why am I even writing about this? There are all kinds of rumours floating around out there about so many things, so what makes this worthy of commentary or pointing out? Fair question, and honestly I would personally be surprised if the PM actually did pull the fire alarm after the budget like this. But there was a detail in Mr. Cohen’s piece that, as someone who’s worked more than a dozen campaigns in his lifetime, gave a few grains of proof to draw upon:

Several suppliers who are called upon by candidates in federal elections have told me they were contacted already to be prepared to start printing material soon for a May vote.

That’s interesting, if only it seems that the Liberals are gearing up but that by itself isn’t proof; many candidates are already out knocking on doors and getting ready for the Fall, so it’s not totally unheard of. But usual a campaign will produce materials more specific to the campaign the closer you get to it, so that’s why I perked up here a bit.

Also after seeing this, I started thinking of what outstanding shoes there are out there to drop, things that are supposed to happen before the next election. One big shoe that has to drop before a writ drop, by law, is calling a by-election in the British Columbia riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith left open by former NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson. She officially resigned on January 2nd, meaning that the PM must at least call that by-election before the writ drops for the fixed date of a Fall general election. So why the wait? Why hasn’t he called that race yet? There could very well be a legit reason for not doing so, but its an interesting curiosity hanging out there that could feed into rumours like the one out of Montreal. Could he not be calling it because he’s thinking of calling an early election that would make the by-election a mute point? Hmmm

Personally I still believe that it would be foolish to rush to an early election and that the damage that would cause to the Liberal brand would be large, undoing any advantage given by catching the Opposition off-guard and would feed into growing perceptions of cynicism that is giving more life to that very same Opposition. I don’t think the PM will pull the fire alarm here. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to speculate on rumours like these; they can be quite the thought excise as we ask ourselves “what if?”.

Demanding Better to Get Better

Earlier today I posted a piece on why the whole PMO/SNC Scandal matters in the political discourse and why we must pay attention to it. In that post I said something that I think bears some repeating for another big reason, which I will get into in a moment. But first, here is the quote:

We complain a lot about the quality of our politicians and how they behave, sometimes rightfully so. But if we turn a blind eye whenever a story like this comes up, we’re just sending them the message that it’s alright to keep doing business as usual. And then we never get the better that we deserve.

So why am I bringing this back up and re-hashing it? Why am I still flogging this horse? Well because nothing happens in a vacuum and the same is true with events. So while the SNC-Lavalin Scandal has been getting its rightful attention, other things of consequence have been happening too that should send some shivers down our spines. Two of those stories have happened in the past week:

Yes folks, it shouldn’t come as a big shock that Andrew Scheer hasn’t been setting the world on fire with his performance as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. In fact, he’s been constantly over-reaching in response to the SNC Scandal by calling for the Prime Minister resignation far too soon. That left him in a position where he had nowhere else to go, and pundits have universally agreed that Scheer flubbed. Even former members of the Harper inner circle are pointing it out.

But the mistakes and over-reach from he and his caucus haven’t stopped there. Their response to certain issues and groups have left many people shaking their heads, with his sharp turn to the alt-right making for some disturbing situations. Situations like the two stories above, where you really have to shake your head and question their collective judgement.

So why is Team Blue doing this? What is the end game and what do they think they are achieving here? In my opinion, it all comes back to one reason, or should I more precisely say, one man: Maxime Bernier. Bernier seems to have taken up permanent residence in Team Scheer’s mind to the point where they should be issuing him rent receipts for the space he’s renting out.

But it seems that most of their decisions are being made thinking “WWMD”: What would Max do? How else do you find yourself in a town hall with Pizza-gaters and not denouncing them fully and on the spot? How else do you explain hosting anyone from abroad who supports Syria’s Bashir al-Assad and seems to be Islamophobic? Probably the same way Andrew Scheer ends up addressing the same rally as Faith Goldy and crew.

So to not to put too fine a point on it, we need progressive politicians to be ethical and moral and not just live strictly by the letter of the law. When we have a politician identify himself with the progressives like Justin Trudeau, who raises peoples’ expectations during an election only to dash them after the win in a seemingly cynical manner, that does damage to the perception of all progressives. It also pushes some people who feel that they were mislead or taken advantage of to either go towards politicians like Scheer or stay home, giving the Conservatives the same effect.

And let’s face some simple facts; we are not in a calm, rational period of politics in many places. These are not the happiest times for many people out there and there are many people are mad for many reasons. This is not the time to get cute about our ethics and morals, because the public isn’t in a mood to stand for it. Stories like the PMO-SNC Scandal are the kind that people can connect with because they touch those ideas of basic fairness. If you feel like you’re already getting screwed, stories like these just feel another screw being drilled into you.

Now this isn’t to say that it’s Justin Trudeau or bust for progressive voters in October, but you can’t look at the state of the NDP today and say they are ready, especially if you’re a progressive from rural and Northern communities like I am. But if the fate of progressive governance for the next four years in Canada rests on a choice between stopping Scheer by supporting an ethically challenged government or voting for a party with a tiny chance of forming government, then we will be in a terrible spot.

That’s a choice we should never have to make and that’s another reason why this SNC story matters. We as progressives need to expect and demand better when a progressive party gets into power. We can’t listen to those who say we’re “hurting the team” if we don’t put up with that garbage. When we start to accept that behaviour, the rot starts to set in and before you know it, you end up with a Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Given these turbulent times, the thought of a Prime Minister Andrew Scheer and some of the support he seems to be courting should scare the Hell out of progressives. That should be pushing us to be screaming for better from those who claim to be progressive like us. The moment demands it and we can’t accept anything less.

Why the SNC-Lavalin Scandal Matters

For a month the news has been filled with details about the SNC-Lavalin Scandal that has embroiled the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This hasn’t been a salacious scandal filled with sex, drugs and insanity like we might see elsewhere, which has led some to say that there is nothing to see here. But just because this story hasn’t had all of those things, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. In a country like ours, a story like this matters for many reasons.

SNC-Lavalin is facing serious criminal charges surrounding alleged bribes paid to the family of Libyan Dictator Moammar Gadhafi, specifically $48 Million in bribes, including paying for yachts and prostitutes for Gadhafi’s son. This is not the only case where SNC has faced allegations like these; they have been banned by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank for past malfeasance.

Now you might say “That’s the price of doing business in some countries”, but SNC has also been involved in cases here at home. They allegedly bribed officials in Montreal to the tune of $22.5 Million in relation to a new hospital project and also made over $100,000 worth of illegal campaign contributions to the Liberals and Conservatives. These are serious charges and show a pattern of behaviour over time.

In the last budget, the Trudeau government passed a law to allow for Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPA). This would allow a company like SNC, if they qualified, to pay huge fines instead of facing a criminal penalty. The rationale for this kind of law is to “protect the jobs of innocent people who had nothing to do with the crimes committed”.

As Attorney General, under this law it was up to Jody Wilson-Raybould to instruct prosecutors to enter into a negotiation. But something happened; she said no. The prosecutors denied SNC’s request for a DPA and Wilson-Raybould backed them up. This was all on the up and up, as the Attorney General has independence and has it for a good reason; to prevent political interference in criminal prosecutions.

Despite that independence, the Prime Ministers office spent months badgering Wilson-Raybould, pointing to all the jobs that were at risk if SNC didn’t get this DPA. Under the law that the Prime Minister passed, the prosecutor is forbidden from considering the “national economic interest”. So, she couldn’t consider that, even though his team still talks about the jobs this day. But that didn’t stop them; they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

They wanted a “solution” she couldn’t say yes to. They offered to bring in “independent, respected jurists” to give a legal opinion, as if her legal training and experience were somehow lacking. It all stunk to high heaven. Prosecutorial independence is a cornerstone of our democracy and if you mess with that for political gain, that’s not just potentially illegal, it’s morally and ethically corrupt. That might be why the OECD Working Group on Bribery put out a statement Monday saying they are concerned about these events.

But when it comes to those jobs, we don’t even know if they are at risk. Gerald Butts testified they had no proof of this claim. So, what do we say to those who never got jobs thanks to the bribes paid by SNC? How about those workers or the companies that were deprived of work building that hospital in Montreal because they decided to obey the law instead of sticking their middle fingers at it? We send a terrible message to those companies and workers if we basically say that SNC is “too big to jail”.

Through out the mandate letters to his ministers, Trudeau wrote that they were to “set a higher bar for openness and transparency” and wanted “Canadians to look on their own government with pride and trust.” He set a tone which I believe ministers like Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott believed in. So, they went about doing their jobs with that in their hearts and minds. When faced with a Prime Minster acting like those words were all puffery, they did what their morals demanded; they resigned. They resigned for doing their jobs and doing the right thing, surely there must be something very wrong about that picture.

That’s why this matters; it cuts to the very core of the basics of upholding peach, order and good government and what Justin Trudeau ran on. The story may not be full of the glitz of an American scandal, but that doesn’t mean it matters any less. Trudeau offered Canadians a better way and an approach that was beyond reproach. So, when he’s seems determined to get his way on SNC, trying to stop Canadians from getting the truth, surely that warrants the attention this story is getting.

We complain a lot about the quality of our politicians and how they behave, sometimes rightfully so. But if we turn a blind eye whenever a story like this comes up, we’re just sending them the message that it’s alright to keep doing business as usual. And then we never get the better that we deserve.

More Concerned Eyes Watching

With one week to go to the Federal Budget and everyone away on break, things promised to be quiet in Ottawa this week, even maybe around the SNC/PMO Scandal. Of course, on Wednesday the Opposition parties have forced another emergency meeting of the House of Commons Justice Committee to discuss “their Request to Study Developments in the Accusation that the Prime Minister and his Closest Political Allies Conspired to Stop the Criminal Trial of a Company Accused of Bribery”. No biggie, right?

Well it remains to see what new will come from that televised meeting on Wednesday at 1 pm EST, but beyond that it seemed like it might be a quiet week. With the PM doing what so many Canadians are doing this week, taking some time away in sunny Florida, it seemed that the odds of big news coming forward were smaller than normal. Well, if this story has taught us anything, it probably is to expect the unexpected:

Yes folks, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, better known by the acronym of the OECD has been paying attention to the news up here. Specifically, the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery have noticed us, which lead them to release this:

The OECD Working Group on Bribery is concerned by recent allegations of interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin that are subject to proceedings in the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. The Canadian engineering and construction group is the subject of an ongoing prosecution into allegations of the bribery of Libyan officials to obtain a Can$ 58-million contract to restore a water pipeline. 
As a Party to the Anti-Bribery Convention, Canada is fully committed to complying with the Convention, which requires prosecutorial independence in foreign bribery cases pursuant to Article 5. In addition, political factors such as a country’s national economic interest and the identity of the alleged perpetrators must not influence foreign bribery investigations and prosecutions.

This is not the kind of news that this government or the Prime Minister really want now. It’s one thing to be facing your fifth ethics investigation in four years or to have a House of Commons committee studying the matter; it’s a very different level of trouble to have the OECD making any comment about the independence of the Canadian judicial system that involves the words “concerned by recent allegations of interference.”

These are the kinds of things that the OECD doesn’t say everyday, especially about Canada, a country that is supposed to be a shining example to the World in these matters. But to me it’s as much as the exact words that are being used here as anything else; “concerned by recent allegations of interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin”. That’s not being said about a third world banana republic, that’s being said about us. The government can trot out the “but jobs, jobs, jobs” line all they like, but that rationale does not excuse or allow interference. According to Jody Wilson-Raybould, Gerald Butts allegedly may have said that “no solution here doesn’t involve at least some political interference”, but as the OECD seems to be pointing out here, there is no provision in the law for “some” political interference. It’s not a matter of degree, it’s a matter of if it was tried or not to any degree.

So as this week keeps moving on, we now know there are another set of eyes watching over this story, this time watching from Paris. The longer this goes, the deeper this story gets, and the worse it is for the government. Yet this is all their own doing so far, and the longer it goes along, we are left to wonder what exactly is left for them to do to try to get out of this. Stay tuned.

The Road Ahead for the SNC/PMO Scandal

As we move fully into the second month of the SNC/PMO Scandal, I think that now would be a good time to look ahead and see where this all could lead. After the courts decision on Friday to deny SNC Lavalin’s attempt to overrule the prosecutors and force them to consider a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), it seems that all roads now go through new Attorney General David Lametti.

But is it as clear cut as that and can Lametti wave his legal wand and give SNC a DPA? Well it’s the details around this that seem to be getting overlooked, which raises a few different points. Our first stop here is looking at the law itself, the “Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act”, where we look at the new section added around DPA. That says:

(3) Despite paragraph (2)(i), if the organization is alleged to have committed an offence under section 3 or 4 of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, 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.

In my reading of that, it seems pretty clear that the “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” argument is a mute one under the law. But you would have to assume that the PMO always knew this fact, so what was their path forward? Ignoring it and trying to instruct the prosecutor to go against the law? It would seem to be that or simply fix the law, a law that I might mention they wrote just the year before. And it seems that fixing the act is not something they are looking at. Another potential roadblock here comes courtesy of University of Ottawa law professor Jennifer Quaid, who pointed out this fact on CPAC last week:

Catch that everyone? According to Quaid’s assessment, the AG only has the right to offer SNC a chance to negotiate a DPA; the AG cannot simply give them one and overrule the whole process. And to top it off, whatever DPA was agreed to would need to be agreed to by the court. Remember on Friday the Federal Court shot down SNC, federal Judge Catherine wrote in her decision that “prosecutorial discretion is not subject to judicial review, except for abuse of power.” Hmmm, that’s an interesting thing to point out at this point in the game. Would the actions of the PMO to date cross that line? That’s up for debate. And that also brings me to a great Twitter thread today from York University law professor and former NDP MP Craig Scott:

Scott makes a great point here about what is appropriate and not when it comes to who can talk to who when and how. As Scott points out, it’s actually the prosecutor who has the duty to review and revisit the case, not the AG. And if SNC’s lawyers are to engage with the prosecutors, they can only do so to bring fresh evidence to the fore; they don’t get to badger “jobs, jobs, jobs” endlessly, they actually have to bring new evidence forward.

On top of that, Scott and University of British Columbia assistant professor Andrew Martin, who specializes in legal ethics, point to big problems with the PMO’s approach to the AG, especially when it comes to why exactly they needed an outside legal opinion. Martin points out that “the only reason to suggest to get an outside opinion is that she’s wrong”, and he’s exactly right; if the PMO agreed with her decision, agreed with her professional judgement, there would be no need to ask for an outside opinion. By asking for that outside opinion, it looks like the PMO was shopping around for a compliant view that could buttress the course of action that they so wanted to take. Folks, that’s just not right.

So going forward it’s clear that there is no clear path ahead for the government when it comes to a DPA for SNC, but going forward though one thing is disturbingly clear; the PMO and the Prime Minister himself feel that they have done nothing wrong here. He and Gerald Butts have said as much, and they saw nothing wrong with pressuring the Attorney General. So if they believe that is fine, shouldn’t we just assume that they are going to do the same to David Lametti now?

It seems that’s all we really can do because the only way we’d find out is for Lametti to blow the whistle on the PM himself, and given his comments on SNC-Lavalin to date, that doesn’t seem to be likely to happen. We will see as things go ahead, but with the few legal options it has before it, it will bear watching what the Prime Minister and the government do next.