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“Conveying Context”

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.

Up Off the Mat or Stuck in the Mud?

Wednesdays in Ottawa are very interesting when the House of Commons is sitting. It’s caucus day for all parties, which can bring some interesting stories, and in this Parliament, it’s the day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes every question in Question Period. Given the news of the past two weeks and the PMO/SNC scandal, that made for a very interesting Wednesday.

Today was one of those days you wish you could be a fly on the wall of a committee room in Ottawa, and this time that room was the Liberals caucus room. Given everything that’s happen in the past two weeks and the newest news in this story from the Globe and Mail, this was the first chance for the entire Liberal caucus to be in the same room together like this. Of course, after the events of yesterday, everyone still included Jody Wilson-Raybould. The Liberal caucus meeting ran very long, which is not surprising given the circumstances, but nothing earth shattering seems to have come out. Most people left the meeting without saying a word while the Prime Minister came out to give a belated public apology for the anonymous comments made attacking Wilson-Raybould, which was a bit odd to see happen and came more than a week too late.

Then we went to Question Period, where it promised to be a grilling on the scandal that’s taken up all of the oxygen in Canadian politics in the past two weeks. This all set up for a potentially explosive and wild QP, but it honestly failed to deliver on that. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used every question they had to try to batter the government on this scandal but honestly failed to land a single blow or draw new details out. The New Democrats didn’t even use all of their questions on the topic, eventually moving off of the topic to go onto other topics. They also didn’t land any shots of consequence this time around. And even Maxime Bernier got a question today and he also failed in his attempts at the same. In fact, the only news that came from Question Period was the announcement by the Finance Minister that the budget will be tabled on Tuesday March 19th.

To wrap it all up, after Question Period we saw a vote in the House of Commons on the NDP Opposition Day motion calling for the Prime Minister to waive privilege and call a public inquiry. That motion went down to an inglorious defeat with only two Liberals, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Wayne Long, voting with the Opposition. The Prime Minister basically said he believes that the Ethics Commissioners investigation and the Justice Committees study was enough, which has its own level of irony given the events of the past two weeks.

The result of the vote though was overshadowed by a move taken by Jody Wilson-Raybould herself right after as she rose to speak on a point of order:

So, a day that started with a lot of promise and potential on this story really didn’t seem to move the needle but brought more confusion. After days of progression and worsening in regard to this story, today marked two consecutive days of stasis, lack of movement and genuine confusion. For the government, you can’t say that these have been good days, but they are days that could have been so much worse so given the circumstances, you can’t help but think they will take this. Despite that, there still seems to be many shoes to drop out there, which Wilson-Raybould’s point of order was a stark reminder of.

For the Opposition parties though, you have to start asking yourselves what more you can do with this story without more information and/or evidence coming from the media. Almost all of the motion that’s come on this story has come from the media and really the Opposition Parties haven’t managed to bring much new to the debate. That has helped to stall the story and has left everyone in this weird place. There are questions that still lay out there and that will continue to give the Opposition grist to run through this mill, it’s just a matter of how much will come out the other side at this point.

But at this point something has to give, because while the governments story so far hasn’t been totally dismantled, it seems that it won’t take much more information to do that. We’ll see if the Justice Committees work will help contribute to that but that will surely be some must see TV. One thing is becoming pretty clear though regarding the privilege involving Jody Wilson-Raybould, and it was Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star who wisely pointed it out today:

The fact is that you can’t continue to claim privilege over and over again when the subject of that privilege (i.e.: The Prime Minister) keeps talking about it. Furthermore, if the reporting is true it feels safe in saying and assuming that if Wilson-Raybould is speaking to the cabinet and Liberal caucus about it must have some effect on the stability or strength of said privilege. It’s one thing to say, “I can’t talk to anyone so I won’t talk”, but that position gets damaged when that person is presumably talking about this matter in private places like Cabinet and Caucus. The Prime Minister won’t be able to keep up this line regarding privilege and it feels more and more like a matter of time before either he waives it himself or Jody Wilson-Raybould gets a legal opinion that tells her that she can speak.

As it sits today though, this story seems to feel a lot like a storm that was lost some steam. It’s not dead and it’s has many opportunities to flare up again, but at this moment it’s in a weird place. It’s not going away, but it’s not advancing. We can’t really tell if the government has gotten up on the mat or if they are stuck in the mud. Either way, things could be a lot worse for the government and that must feel like a win after the past two weeks they’ve had. We’ll see who is feeling like a winner come the end of Friday.

Running in Place

Today we saw MPs return after their Family Day break and get back to work in Ottawa. As I wrote about last night, today promised to be one of the most consequential days in the life of this government and after over a week away from Ottawa, today offered the Opposition parties their first real chance to go after the government in person since the SNC/PMO story broke. And today offered all kinds of opportunities and events to feed into that narrative.

To start the day, the Federal Cabinet had their usual Tuesday morning meeting. The House of Commons Justice Committee was scheduled to meet in the afternoon “In Camera” to discuss witnesses for a study into this issue. The NDP had an Opposition Day and they used it to bring a motion up for debate that went right at this issue head on. And on top of all of that, you had the usual scrumming MPs, getting them on the record, all of what can squirm out of that and the usual things we don’t see coming.

So what did the day bring? Well the debate on the NDP Opposition Day went ahead as a normal one, with debate all day on this scandal and what should happen. The Conservatives decided to indicate their support while the Government hadn’t made a commitment one way or another, but more on that in a bit.

The Federal Cabinet meeting was one that brought some of the most unexpected and surprising results of all. First of all, the meeting ran long, very long and given the events of the past week, that made complete sense. But it was what happened directly in the aftermath of the meeting that had jaws hitting the newly-renovated floors in the West Block.

So before Question Period even started, news had come. Not only had Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared outside the Cabinet meeting that no one expected her to be at, it turns out that she asked to talk to caucus too? That’s a big development by itself, but it was one put in greater context by what came in the next two hours.

In a stretch of less than three hours, Jody Wilson-Raybould shows up at Cabinet, speaks to them, takes her seat in the House like nothing had happened, the Liberals on the Justice Committee change their tune and ask her to testify, and then she speaks more to the media as she walks down the Hill. All of this is very different, and for many, very confusing. Most people when at the centre of such a situation keep their heads down, stay quiet until the right time to speak, stay away from Caucus (let alone showing up at Cabinet after resigning from Cabinet), stay away from the House and wait. In 270 minutes, Jody Wilson-Raybould did the opposite of all of that.

But what’s most amazing in that doing the opposite, we are actually no closer to knowing what happened and no closer to a resolution to this whole situation. In speaking, Wilson-Raybould didn’t actually tell us anything more than we had already heard and didn’t help the government clean this story up. Last week when Prime Minister Trudeau said before her resignation that “her presence in cabinet should actually speak for itself”, those words came back to bite him the next day. But today it’s ironic because her very presence in that Cabinet room and in her usual seat in the front row of the government benches also spoke for itself; it’s just that no one is sure what she said by it yet.

Looking ahead from this point today surely didn’t clear the air but if the Liberals are feeling a bit better tonight I can’t blame them. Sure all of this didn’t exonerate anyone, but it was far from the worst case scenario that todays Question Period alone potentially offered. If anything, the mixed signals and decisions taken today have slowed down the progression of this story. But there are still big potholes ahead here for them. For starters, now that Wilson-Raybould will testify before the Justice Committee, that makes opposing the Opposition motion calling on the Prime Minister to waive his privilege that much harder. Either Wilson-Raybould gets to testify fully at the committee, which involves the privilege matter being dealt with, or she testifies and gives a series of “I’m bound by privilege so I can’t speak” answers, which will just undo any good will and effect that allowing her to testify would have gained. But as much as the House of Commons still offers the Liberals issues, the biggest problem on the horizon might actually come from the Red Chamber thanks to the Conservatives there:

If the Senate actually decides to launch an investigation in line with that motion, this story won’t go away and will fester until election time. For the government, this all becomes a high-stakes test of the true independence of the Senate that the Prime Minister has been trying to set up. The first test will be if the motion itself even passes. If it does, then you have the spectacle of the committee study, with no members on it that are formally a part of your government. And then there’s the actual result of the committee, the report and possible fall out; The government would have no way to officially pressure members on the committee to vote it down, and if they did try to pressure the Independent Senators that they nominated, it seriously undermine what they had promised to deliver on that front. None of that promises to be good for the Liberals and it’s a factor that’s totally outside of their control.

For the Opposition parties, they still have work to do. There is only so far they can go with the information that’s out there now, and the performance today in Question Period didn’t have the big impact that they need it to. The upside for the Opposition tonight is that they have more time, more Question Periods and more of this story to come. No government can have perfect Question Periods for weeks on end, and in every caucus, people get nervous and speak out. So while today was a good day for the Liberals, they can’t be expected to have perfect days forever. And finally for the Opposition, you will now get your chance in the Justice Committee with Jody Wilson-Raybould; the question is can you make it count when it comes? That’s the part that remains to be seen.

The rest of this week ought to be very interesting, especially given that tomorrow morning will be Caucus day for all parties on the Hill. We’ll see what comes out of those caucus rooms after they all get together and hash out the events of the past two weeks. And of course, there could still be more news to break in this story. Today was a day with a bit for everyone to be happy with, but this story is far from being over. We’ll see tomorrow what Wednesday brings.

Butts Out

Well this is quite the turn of events, one that I don’t think that many people saw coming, or at least so soon. I surely didn’t.

Needless to say, this is bad news for the government and a big escalation of this story and despite that escalation, there is really no new light shed upon this whole story. In his resignation letter, Gerald Butts goes out of his way to say that the allegations involving him in the SNC Lavalin story are just not true, and denies that anyone in the PMO did try to pressure Jody Wilson-Raybould. But like everything else in this story to date, while that statement doesn’t give us any new answers, but brings about a lot of new questions.

Of all the questions that now come up, the biggest and easiest one to grasp is this: If you’ve done nothing wrong, why resign? Gerry Butts is not a small figure in this government and in fact, it’s hard to point to someone in a similar position whose had so much sway and importance to a PMO since the days of the elder Trudeau. That means that the resignation of Butts is far from being a small matter, it’s huge. That also means that if you were trying to offer up a resignation to try to quell this storm, there would be many other people further down the line who would be offered up first before getting to Butts. Having Gerald Butts resign is an escalation, and some would say a complete over-reaction, if there was nothing to this story.

And that’s the rub here folks; by stepping aside like this, at this time, it doesn’t douse the flames coming from this story. This resignation is a shot of high-test jet fuel to this fire and promises to draw much more attention to the whole thing. That will exponentially increase the pressure on the Justice Committee as they meet tomorrow to discuss witnesses in this matter and makes it harder to keep Butts from being a witness. How do you deny calling him? Not important enough to hear from and immaterial, but so important that he must resign his job for having done nothing wrong? That makes so little sense that it’s downright laughable.

In a story like this I’m always weary of rushing ahead too fast and calling for the biggest reaction you can come out with, because doing so always seems to be an overreaction and undermines any attempt to give proper investigation to such stories. But now that Mr. Butts has decided to leave like this, I think that calls from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh for a Public Inquiry are now on the mark.

This resignation escalates this matter, and that calls for an escalated response. That also makes it all the more important that we hear from Jody Wilson-Raybould, as her side of the story is still out there to be heard. The government has let this get right out of control in a span of 11 days to the point where the Prime Ministers most trusted advisor is now gone. That’s no small matter, and you really can’t downplay that. Any further attempts to downplay this issue by the Prime Minister should be avoided in my view and one would expect that he will arrive in Question Period tomorrow with better answers than he’s had so far. If not, then this fire will keep growing and consuming more and more of what they have built. We’ll see what tomorrow brings but with this new, tomorrows Question Period just became the most important QP of Justin Trudeau’s leadership to date.

Rough Ride Ahead

Back when the House of Commons rose for it’s usual holiday break in December, the first few months of 2019 looked to be promising ones for the governing Liberals. They had gotten to the break in a good position, with a big election year budget coming in the Spring and with their Opposition mostly scattered, weakened or unable to mount any major challenges. But wow did 2019 come in with a vengeance.

We all know the story about now-former Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, from the cabinet shuffle, to the Globe and Mail stories, and then everything that’s flowed from it, including the poor response (or should I say responses) from the government to it all. In the span of less than a month, what looked to be a promising 2019 for the Liberals as quickly turned on its head and with the return of the House of Commons tomorrow, it promises to get worse before it gets better.

And to me that is the striking thing about this whole situation to date; it’s mostly taken place with the House of Commons on recess. Prime Minister Trudeau has only had to face one question period on the SNC scandal so far, and that was on the first day that the story broke and comparatively nothing had happened yet in the story. In the break week since, so much more has happened and so much more about this story has come spilling out. It’s rare to see that happen, and it promises to be a bad omen for the government.

So tomorrow the House will sit for nine more days until their next break. On top of the House sitting, we’ll have the scene taking place behind closed doors in the Justice Committee on Tuesday. After having botched the emergency meeting called last week, tomorrow would offer a good chance to get some things right for the government members and call all the witnesses that need to be heard from. Of course, because the meeting will be “In Camera”, we won’t know what was said or what was even rejected, only what was approved. So we’ll have to read between the lines and make our best assumptions as to what happened in there.

But that to me is a prime example of the problem the government has found itself in here. The Hill Times has a good story out today about the worry and “serious concern” running around government circles about this issue, and there is one line from an anonymous Liberal staffer that makes a great point about politics in general; “perception is reality”. Once that perception takes hold, it’s hard to undo but even worse for the government, even if the facts in the end support them and show that they were totally in the right, the damage how people perceive them will be irreversibly done. Because even if that exoneration comes, many people will still ask themselves “why did the Liberals act this way?” “Why didn’t they just come clean?” “I thought they were the one who were going to be different?”.

For me that damage to perception is the biggest problem for this government, especially where it is coming from. I still remember back when the Liberals had their Leadership Campaign to replace Paul Martin, I told Liberal friends of mine back then that their best shot at revival was picking a leader who had no ties to the last two governments, who had no ties to the years of AdScam and who had no ties to the internal battles they had been fighting for year. Justin Trudeau was such a person, along with having the cache of having the “Trudeau” name. And you saw that advantage playing out when he became leader. He was able to get members to put aside their divisions for the most part and he was able to take bolder moves and positions at being a cleaner party because he had the credibility that came without having those ties to hold him back. He was the one who could honestly say that they’ve learned from the past and were doing better today because of it.

But as the SNC/PMO scandal has grown and started to take on more of a life of it’s own, something about the details of this story has stirred memories for many folks about that past that he had no connection to. Even though this scandal is not the same as AdScam was, it has drawn eerie parallels that some in the media have pointed out, like Dan Leger of the Halifax Chronicle Herald did today. And in my view, that is the biggest problem for the government here. This story may not be the easiest one to follow and it is not a straight forward one, but it brings back those memories for a lot of people and can make it all blur together.

To drive that point home about perception issues, Maclean’s released results of a poll that points to how closely people are following this and how people are viewing it. Here is the part that leapt out at me:

The online panel survey of 1,500 adults, taken Wednesday and Thursday by Public Square Research, showed that 43 per cent have followed the controversy since a Globe and Mail story cited anonymous sources who said the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Wilson-Raybould to avoid a court trial for the Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Twelve per cent said they “know a lot about” the story, while 31 per cent  “know a little bit” about it. A further 27 per cent say they’ve heard about the controversy but “don’t really know what’s going on,” and 30 per cent have heard nothing about it.
 
Of the 43 per cent who’ve followed the story enough to know a lot or a bit about it, 73 per cent say Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility, compared to only 27 per cent who say the prime minister is more credible.


https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/justin-trudeaus-credibility-gap-on-snc-lavalin/

These numbers are simply bad for the government. To have 43% of respondents “following” this story in the week that it’s been out there, that means it’s getting penetration in the public. It may not be swinging opinions yet, but people are watching. To make it worse, the fact that 73% of that 43% say that Jody Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility in the matter, that’s bad for the government. You can’t look at that number and say “well that’s just Conservatives who don’t like us”. That kind of number means that it’s coming from all angles and all quarters. That number is as much a function of how the government has responded to this story as anything else. When you put together the number of stories and explanations the government members have put out so far, their actions at the Justice committee last week, and combine that with the fact that the Prime Minister won’t let Wilson-Raybould speak for herself while he gives his side of the story, it all raises a lot of questions. The combination of a disjointed and bad response from the government, along with the silencing of Wilson-Raybould, bolsters her credibility and eats away at the Prime Ministers.

In short, the government looks scared of her and what she might say if given the chance. Most people understand that if nothing was done wrong here, there is nothing to be afraid of. That fear is speaking volumes and it seems that it’s getting the peoples attention. So tomorrow we’ll see the first of what promises to be many raucous Question Periods this Spring. We’ll see Opposition parties with the first bit of wind in their sails that they’ve had in a long while and a government that’s looking to be at it’s worst point since they got elected, even though they still ride higher in the polls than the others. This isn’t the scene we’d thought that we’d see two months ago, but sometimes in politics, things can change just that fast.