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Following the Letter

It’s a Monday after a relatively quiet weekend, and I can’t help but think that no one is happier about that fact than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal caucus. After three weeks of seemingly unceasing new stories and details coming out in the SNC/PMO Scandal, this weekend seemed to let up a bit. Sure, there were other stories of consequence that came out, but right now this is where everyone’s focus is.

So as the week starts, I’m sure that there are many ways that the PM would have hoped that it could have started. As he started the day on Prince Edward Island, I feel safe in saying that he hoped for a quiet start to this week. But that hope must have went away fast once this cover from the newest edition of Maclean’s started to make the rounds:

Ouch! That’s quite the statement right there, and the piece of the same title by Paul Wells is equally strong. I suggest you check it out because it’s on the mark and honestly, I can’t do it enough justice here. But what I can do though is go into a point here that I believe is getting lost in this story, and from some circles, a part of the story that’s trying to be buried and forgotten. What is that you ask? Well, that’s the standard that the Prime Minister set for himself, for his party and sold to Canadians during the last election.

With that in mind, I went back to the mandate letter that the Prime Minister gave to then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould; that letter happens to be the same one that new Justice Minister David Lametti operates under. Here is what that letter said about the Prime Ministers expectations of his Justice Minister and Attorney General:

We have also committed to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government. It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves. Government and its information should be open by default. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians. It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them. Canadians do not expect us to be perfect – they expect us to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest….

You have a double role as both Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Canada. As Minister of Justice, you are the legal advisor to Cabinet. In this capacity you are responsible with the administration of justice, including policy in such areas as criminal law, family law, human rights law, public law and private international law, constitutional law and Aboriginal justice. As the Attorney General of Canada, you are the chief law officer of the Crown, responsible for conducting all litigation for the federal government and for upholding the Constitution, the rule of law, and respect for the independence of the courts.

As Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, your overarching goal will be to ensure our legislation meets the highest standards of equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law. I expect you to ensure that our initiatives respect the Constitution of Canada, court decisions, and are in keeping with our proudest legal traditions. You are expected to ensure that the rights of Canadians are protected, that our work demonstrates the greatest possible commitment to respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that our government seeks to fulfill our policy goals with the least interference with the rights and privacy of Canadians as possible….

We have committed to an open, honest government that is accountable to Canadians, lives up to the highest ethical standards, and applies the utmost care and prudence in the handling of public funds. I expect you to embody these values in your work and observe the highest ethical standards in everything you do. When dealing with our Cabinet colleagues, Parliament, stakeholders, or the public, it is important that your behaviour and decisions meet Canadians’ well-founded expectations of our government. I want Canadians to look on their own government with pride and trust.”

You can hear the tone all through out those quotes; “a higher bar for openness and transparency”, “respect for the independence of the courts”, “in keeping with our proudest legal traditions” and “observe the highest ethical standards in everything you do”. In all the mandate letters to all ministers in this government, you see similar phrases and tones, you hear how this government is going to be different and how important that is to be better. As this letter said, the Prime Minister wants “Canadians to look at their own government with pride and trust”. Something tells me that the events of the past few weeks wouldn’t lead a lot of Canadians to feel that way.

It’s reached the point where some polling is now showing the effect this story is having. Nanos Research released results last night that say that 1 in 4 Canadians are now saying that this story will affect their vote. That’s rough, but there is a lot of wiggle room inside that. But some other numbers released by Greg Lyle of Innovative Research goes at this question a bit differently, and I believe comes back with a much more damning result:

Take that in for a moment folks; “37% of respondents thought Trudeau represented positive change but now have a worse opinion of him”. That’s not 37% of the overall population, nor is it 37% of other parties’ supporters. No, that’s 37% of people who viewed the PM positively. Almost 2 in 5 of them. That’s a very bad sign, I don’t care how you look at it.

So why might people be feeling that way? Well because Justin Trudeau sold Canadians on a bill of goods; he told everyone he was going to be better, that he had learned from the mistakes of Liberal governments past and that with Sunny Ways, he’d be different. And that is why this story hurts the Liberal brand and the PM so much; because it is showing him to be no different than anyone else that he used to decry.

Now some people out there are talking about how no laws were broken and such, but last time I checked legality was not the bar at which we judge governments. Something can be very legal and ethically dubious, and you can point to many things the Harper Conservatives did that met that very description. And folks, that’s what Justin Trudeau promised to fix, he said it right in those mandate letters, including Jody Wilson-Raybould’s. To me, that’s one of the ironies we face in this story, because the more we learn about this episode, the more it sounds like Jody Wilson-Raybould was simply following the letter and the spirit of the mandate letter that the Prime Minister gave her.

In the end, she was trying to meet that high bar the PM set, to be highly ethical not just merely legal, and tried to deliver on work that would help Canadians have pride and trust in their government. She was trying to be the minister the PM described in writing and posted on his website. So, when it seems that the PMO started to veer from that, it’s easy to see the internal conflict that would arise. And the blame for that rests not with Jody Wilson-Raybould. That rests with the person who set the high standard then seems to have gone on to treat it as nothing more than electoral rhetoric; rhetoric that many Canadians took to be as solemn promises of better. When those promises get broken, people who believed them don’t forget.

Three Big Shoes Drop

Most weeks so far in 2019 haven’t been so good for New Democrats. We’ve had a lot of negatives to point to, and people have been down. It’s been a rough period to be on Team Orange, but this week was one when a big shoe was expected to drop that had the chance to turn things around. This week started with a lot of promise and positivity.

On Monday that shoe dropped, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s solid win in the Burnaby South by-election, earning a seat in the House of Commons. Not only did he win with a larger margin than the NDP had in 2015, it helped to put to rest the questions about Singh’s future as lead. He won, he won well and earned his chance to take the party into the Fall election. That brought certainty that had been lacking for a while and offered a chance for the party to re-launch.

Later in the week, good news continued to come for the NDP in their response to the developments in the SNC/PMO Scandal. After Jody Wilson-Raybould’s bombshell testimony Wednesday evening, Jagmeet Singh came before the cameras, went live on national television and gave the perfect performance. He read that tone and mood of the moment right, he didn’t overplay his hand and came away from the evening looking the best out of the three major party leaders. In short, Jagmeet started to show some of what he was capable of doing.

If the week had ended right there, this would have been a great week for the New Democrats. But unfortunately that’s not where it ended, and two other shoes that have been hanging around for a while came crashing down. The first came on Thursday and the second came this evening:

While these announcements do bring us to 13 NDP MPs who are not offering again or who have left, the decisions by Murray and Nathan are not part of any narrative that people want to spin on this. For both of these members, they are long serving MPs and both travel some of the longest distances of any MP out there, coming from Vancouver Island and Northwest BC respectively. These are actually two decisions I had been expecting because of those facts, and also because I’ve gotten to know both of them a bit to different degrees.

Murray is someone I got to know pretty well in 2015. In that spring, I was approached about lending Murray’s office a hand; a good colleague of mine was dealing with health issues, and I was asked if I would go help Murray in his office for the last two months before the House of Commons rose for the election. When I first came in, he made me feel at home, comfortable and a part of the team, even though I had just showed up and was going back to my normal job in June. I also came to know him for his generosity and his wicked sense of humour. He is just a fun person to be around and after that, whenever I’d see him around the Hill, he’d always shot a quick quip or joke at me. He’s not just the great politician that everyone has got to see this week in the Justice committee, he’s the real deal as a person.

Nathan is someone who I got to be around over my nine years on Parliament Hill, including during the 2011/12 Leadership Race when I was helping run one of the other campaigns. But my favour memories of him are honestly one of my first. When I started working on Parliament Hill in late 2009, about once a week a group of staff and MPs would get together in Jack Layton’s MP office in the West Block, where most of us worked. Someone who get a larger TV and a DVD player, we’d order some food, bring some beverages and watch episodes of “The West Wing”. Nathan would take part in these evenings sometimes, like other caucus members would, and it was an awesome time. It was in those evenings that I really felt welcomed and I felt like I had joined a team. Of course, Nathan is prodigious for his parliamentary abilities too, as everyone also got to see this week. But after 15 years of some of the worst travel of all Parliamentarians and a young family, I respect and understand his decision.

While it’s sad to see the Orange Team lose two big parts like Nathan and Murray, their departures are not something nefarious. But this news tonight did make me reflect on what New Democrats face going forward, but also reflect on where the party was just four years ago and what might have been. Going into the 2015 election, the party had a deep front bench and had attracted some of the best candidates they ever had. That group some MPs such as:

Tom Mulcair, Megan Leslie, Paul Dewar, Charlie Angus, Craig Scott, Robert Chisholm, Jack Harris, Guy Caron, Romeo Saganash, Alex Boulerice, Helene Laverdiere, Ruth-Ellen Brousseau, Francoise Boivin, Nycole Turmel, Matthew Dube, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, Irene Mathyssen, Dave Christopherson, Peggy Nash, Brian Masse, Malcolm Allen, Claude Gravelle, Niki Ashton, Pat Martin, Linda Duncan, Peter Julian, Kennedy Stewart, Nathan Cullen, Murray Rankin, Don Davies, Dennis Bevington

On top of that strong class for MPs running, they added some amazing new candidates in 2015 like:

Monika Dutt, Rosaire L’Italien, Maria Mourani, Daniel Caron, Hans Marotte, Andrew Thomson, Howard Hampton, Olivia Chow, Jennifer Hollett, John Fenik, Emilie Taman, Andrew Foulds, Noah Richler, Diane Freeman, Tracey Ramsey, Daniel Blaikie, Erin Selby, Aaron Paquette, Cameron Alexis, Carol Baird Ellan, Mira Oreck, Jack Anawak

Now going into 2019, here is the list of those remaining who are running:

Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron, Niki Ashton, Brian Masse, Alex Boulerice, Ruth-Ellen Brousseau, Matthew Dube, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, Peter Julian, Don Davis, Tracey Ramsey, Emilie Taman, Daniel Blaikie

In this Parliament, some new members of the NDP caucus have stepped up to play bigger roles and have become part of that top team, like Ramsey, Blaikie, Karine Trudel and Rachel Blaney. But the caucus is still seeing lots of experience and institutional knowledge taking their leave. That will leave a big hole for the party without doubt.

The NDP is facing many issues, we all know that and I will go into some of those at a later and more appropriate time. This week though has really helped to show some of the challenges the party is going to face going forward though. While there are parts of this week that have been the best the group as had in weeks, seeing Cullen and Rankin leave hurts, no matter how much party members wish them well. They are the kinds of MPs that just don’t come along everyday, as are many of the others who have decided to take their leave. That can’t help but leave a hole. This is another challenge to add to the list of ones that Jagmeet Singh faces going forward. We’ll see how the Orange Team tackles those in the weeks and months ahead.

Panic Shuffles

It’s Thursday night and while the House of Commons is going late into the night having an emergency debate on Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony yesterday and the PMO/SNC Scandal, news keeps breaking elsewhere. It would have been totally normal and justified to think that probably the most of the big news of the week was done; hey, normally that would be the case. Well if this week has shown us anything, it’s that it’s been far from a normal week. And that continued as this evening has gone on:

It looks like we’ll be in for more testimony at the House of Commons Justice Committee, with Gerald Butts coming forth to give his truth. Add to that a return appearance by the Clerk of the Privy Council and there promises to be more fireworks when those meetings happen. But before all that happens, we had a curve ball come at us involving Rideau Hall of all places:

Cabinet shuffle? Now? Wow, I tip my hat off to you if you had that one on your PMO/SNC Scandal Bingo Card. But in the meantime, this surprises me if only because of the optics; that is, it looks really bad. This looks like a Prime Minister who is panicking and not in control right now. The timing of this looks even worse given the fact that when Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned as Veterans Affairs Minister, the position was given over to Harjit Sajjan and we kind of got the impression this would remain the case for a while. The PM or his team didn’t give the impression that this was a temporary, holding of the position.

So that leaves more than a few legit questions that we have to ask:

  1. Why do this now? It seems that this could have waited and promises to add more fuel to this fire.
  2. How many people in this Cabinet Shuffle? You would think it wouldn’t be big, yet the CBC is reporting that “some ministers have been called back to Ottawa to prepare for a Friday morning shuffle”. Some is more than one, so that leaves the impression that some ministers are either getting shuffled around or shuffled out. Stay tuned on that.
  3. How safe is Minister Lametti? Given everything that’s happened so far, especially the way in which he was brought up in yesterdays committee hearing, that he is a damaged minister barely a few days into the position. You have to ask the question if he can stay in his spot given all this storm, but that also leads to another question.
  4. Does the PM split the Justice Minister and Attorney General positions into two separate cabinet positions? Given how this scandal has revolved around the tension of being both Justice Minster and AG, it would seem to make sense to split these jobs apart now. It would be one way for the government to say that they’ve seen the problem and have taken a concrete action going forward. It wouldn’t change the story and wouldn’t put it to bed, but at least it would allow the government to say they’ve learned and done better.
  5. If this split happens, who becomes AG? Given how Minister Lametti’s name has been hurt in this scandal, I can’t picture him staying in the role if the split comes. So if not him, who? That would make for an interesting promotion for whoever got it and one that would be completely nerve wracking. If you thought there was pressure on that role before, well crank that up to 11 now.

Those are a lot of open questions and we’ll find out a lot more tomorrow. One thing is clear tonight; this is a government that’s not in it’s finest form and they’re searching for ways to staunch the bleeding. Depending what they do with this shuffle tomorrow, we’ll have a better idea about how the government is going to try to deal with this. But at this moment, this does look like a government in a bit of a panic and if they’re not, sudden moves like these sure to make it look like they are. As we move into week four of the PMO/SNC Scandal, the government still hasn’t gotten a handle on it. This news tonight doesn’t offer immediate promise that they will get a handle on this before this week ends either.

The Next Day: SNC/PMO Edition

Yesterday was a rare day in Canadian politics or in Canadian political scandals; it was a day that delivered on its promise, and then some. The testimony from Jody Wilson-Raybould was some of the most compelling words we’ve heard in a Parliamentary Committee in a long time.

After three and a half hours of meeting, the story then moved to the other political actors on the scene; Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and then the Prime Minister himself. First of this trio to find their way to a microphone was Mr. Scheer representing his Conservatives and at this point I think it would be good to review something I said just last night about their approach going forward:

For the Conservatives, this allows them a big topic to talk about, as long as they don’t overplay their hand and go too far. Before todays meeting, they haven’t been able to do that so it remains to be seen if they can do it consistently going forward.

With that in mind, what did Scheer do when he had the chance to build on his party’s work in the Justice Committee? Well you can see here for yourself just how badly he overplayed his hand:

Scheer went straight to the top of the rhetorical list and in the process looked bad, boarding on amateurish. He overreacted and overreached, calling for something that was never going to happen so soon in this process. And by doing so, it gives the Liberals and the PM breathing space, simply because they don’t need to reach to an overreaching request. That doesn’t make the problem go away, but it doesn’t make the government sweat anymore than it already is. So just as they have done for three weeks prior to yesterdays Justice meeting, the Conservatives spun their wheels and haven’t added at all to the story or advance it one bit.

Now before yesterdays Justice committee meeting, the same was also true of the New Democrats; none of the opposition had to that point really. But for the NDP and Jagmeet Singh they have to worry about the same pitfall that just claimed the Conservatives; overreaching. So how did Singh do in his response?

Jagmeet Singh might have just had the best moment of his leadership to date. He and his team hit the right tone, found the proper mood and reacted with the right response. By continuing to call for a Public Inquiry, something they had already asked for in the past, it offered a reasonable way to get to the bottom of this issue while not jumping to conclusions. When asked if the PM should resign, his measured response was right on the mark; not closing the door, but not rushing to judgement. That brought some kudos from a different place than one might have expected for Jagmeet:

Then we heard from the PM himself, in Montreal, and his response left a lot to be desired:

Beside from the optics of the scene that was bad (with red “Liberal” signs splashed everywhere, which I think that some campaign folks will come to regret come the Fall), the answer itself was far from fulsome and didn’t respond to the issue at hand. It seemed like a dodge and a bad attempt at trying to have it both ways. It did nothing to stem the tide that the government is facing and left me wonder if that’s what he had to say, why put the Prime Minister out to speak at all? Silence might have been better than those words in that setting. The Prime Minister didn’t end the day well at all.

The next day started this morning, with two moves coming from the Opposition; one a solid request while the other another piece of overreaching theatre:

I can’t help but wonder what the Conservatives are thinking with this letter from Scheer to the RCMP. In a case of alleged political interference in the administration of justice, the Blue Team thought it was a good idea to send a letter to the head of the RCMP urging them to intervene? Wow, talk about bad judgement there and not a good look. The fact remains that the RCMP is independent and doesn’t need anyone to ask them to look into any potential crimes. Given all of the news around this story, does Scheer and Co. seriously think that the RCMP wasn’t noticing any of this? Does he think that their cable is out, or they’ve banned newspapers in RCMP headquarters? The last thing the RCMP Commissioner needed was a nod and a shove from Andrew Scheer to do something. Of course, that’s obviously assuming that the Conservatives are assuming that the RCMP is not. That might be a bad assumption to make and honestly just speaks to how short-sightedly the Conservatives are taking all this.

But alongside this most recent piece of overreach, the request for an emergency debate in the House of Commons was right on the mark. This is exactly the kind of case that we have this mechanism in place for, and the fact that the Speaker agreed to this so quickly goes to prove just how true that is. So tonight we’ll now get hours of debate in primetime, after the normal day is on the House is done. Starting at around 7 pm EST tonight, we’ll see some more political theatre in a week that has been full of it.

Tonight might deliver more results and big moments like yesterdays Justice committee meeting did, or it might simply result in a lot of heat and light signifying nothing. Regardless of what happens tonight, this story is in full bloom and the government has a big problem that it still hasn’t figure out how to handle. They haven’t seemed to get their plan together and emergency debates like tonight will give the Opposition parties a chance to get theirs together. The NDP seems to have theirs in place, while the Conservatives continue to reach for the moon that the Prime Minister says that we’re now going to, rather than taking a serious approach you’d expect from a serious government in waiting. One thing is for sure, I don’t think that a two-week break ahead has looked so good to a Canadian government in a very long time.

Devastating Truth

Today has been a wild day all around the world, between Michael Cohen’s testimony in Washington, Trump and Kim in Vietnam and the new tensions between India and Pakistan. There have been a lot of big things to take our attention, and rightfully so. But the biggest news that is running live all over TV across Canada is todays hearing in the House of Commons Justice committee. This afternoon Jody Wilson-Raybould went before the committee to deliver something we’ve been waiting for now for a while; her side of the SNC/PMO scandal and her truth. And deliver is something that she did in spades, and it was clear why she wanted that thirty minutes at the start:

There is something to be said for what Jody Wilson-Raybould said and her testimony before getting into the details; she was ready, she was prepared, she had notes, she brought paper and had proof to back up her words. The biggest thing that she did was manage to take this beyond a “he said, she said” story and bared the naked truth about this story. The scale and the details here are staggering; 11 individuals involved, 10 meetings and 10 phone calls, over four months of sustained and constant pressure from the Prime Ministers office, the Privy Councils office and the office of the Minister of Finance. She laid out a highly detailed timeline from September right up until her shuffle in January, and with that she methodically told us her truth. Instead of repeating it all, I’ll just share her written testimony here below:

So, what does this story mean going forward for everyone? Well for starters the Prime Minister must be the happiest person getting on a plane out of Ottawa today, as he won’t have to be in Question Period for the last two days before a two-week Parliamentary break. That gives him until March 18th until he has to face the Opposition to figure out a path forward. But that won’t help this go away, because everywhere he goes, this question will be dogging him.

For the government though, this is simply devastating. The details and extra proof that Wilson-Raybould shows clearly that this was not a simple misunderstanding or someone experiencing something differently than the rest of the team. Being asked to “help out”, being told that they don’t want to “discuss legalities anymore” and being told that PM will try to find a way to get it done, “one way or another”, doesn’t leave an impression of simple confusion. That’s all very clear, both in message and intent. This has all jumped to another level.

The damage to the government here is big and people will be gone over this; the question remains as to who, how many and from where. On top of that though, you have to wonder though how this Liberal caucus stays together as is; in fact, that seems impossible now. How does Jody Wilson-Raybould stay in caucus after this testimony today? She has made it clear that she is a Liberal and wants to run again as a Liberal, but how does that look logistically today? Caucuses are teams of a sort, and it’s already hard enough for a caucus to not remove members for lower-level things. So how is she able to stay after this bombshell testimony?

And further to that, if she decides to stay in caucus and the Prime Minister moves to eject her from it, how will the rest of the caucus react? Because of the reactions of some caucus members during this whole episode, who have shown their support for Jody Wilson-Raybould publicly, I can’t help but feel that if she was tossed that others might follow her out the door. That’s not based on any inside knowledge but is just a feeling I have. It seems that she has built strong relationships in her caucus and has good friends there, so it seems to fit that if she left, some may go with her.

For the Opposition parties, both the Conservative and the NDP, this committee meeting was their best meeting in this whole episode; this was their finest hour. They picked up the tone of the room today and didn’t go overboard; they stayed professional, asked good questions and let the witness lead this meeting where it needed to go. For the first time in this saga, some of their questions really helped to advance the story as well. But the biggest thing that happened today was the shot of high-test adrenaline that this story was given. It’s proved the Opposition right for chasing after this story so doggedly for the past few weeks and promises to live on long beyond today. This story could have died today, but that didn’t happen.

This story has now reached a point where this is going to change the narrative and the trajectory of this election year. Coming into 2019, it looked very strongly like the Liberals were on their way to a second majority, the Conservatives would fall short and the NDP was heading for oblivion. But after three by-elections and todays testimony, the ground has shifted and has the ability now to turn everything on hits head. This testimony today brings the images and memories of old Liberal scandals rushing back to mind, and hits many of the same themes those old scandals did. There is now enough “there there” to bring damage to the Prime Minister and his brand.

For the Conservatives, this allows them a big topic to talk about, as long as they don’t overplay their hand and go too far. Before todays meeting, they haven’t been able to do that so it remains to be seen if they can do it consistently going forward.

But for the New Democrats, this all couldn’t have come along at the best time. During his first Question Period on March 18th, Jagmeet Singh will have a ready-made issue to go after and to re-introduce himself to Canadians. This will give him a chance to get his feet in the chamber and build towards the election. It also gives the NDP a chance to present a strong alternative to the government, if they don’t overplay their hand as well. I always say that in politics, waves come and while you can’t create one, when a big one comes you need to be ready to catch it and ride it. That big wave is here, and Team Orange needs to do their best to catch this wave.

Today delivered on the hype and proved that beneath all that smoke, a good-sized fire was burning away. That fire has now broken wide open and is starting to singe this government. If they don’t take the right steps in the next few days, that fire will start to burn at the supports that are holding this government up. There are still a lot of questions about what might come next for the Liberals and the Opposition. But one thing is for sure, Jody Wilson-Raybould made good on her promise to deliver her truth, and that truth is proving to be quite devastating.