Many days on Parliament Hill, issues or stories will pop up that look bad on a government. When it happens, some of the most hardcore partisans jump up and down, snapping “Ah ha!!!! We got them!!!”, thinking that this will be the time that the government has finally slipped and will pay a big price for their mistakes. That scene plays out a lot, and nine times out of ten, those stories go away and cause nary a sleepless night for the party in power.
It’s an old adage in politics that governments usually defeat themselves, and many times it’s a result of a thousand small cuts, not a big massive blow. But sometimes a blow comes along that leaves a big mark, not enough of one to slay the giant, but enough to knock it off it’s balance, stagger it and have the effect of dozens of those cuts at one time. It doesn’t happen often, and really the last time I would argue that you saw one in Canada was the whole Mike Duffy affair. That left a mark in the Harper Conservatives, but wasn’t alone what brought that government to it’s end.
So when the SNC-Lavalin/Wilson-Raybould story broke yesterday in the Globe and Mail, it had heads in Ottawa spinning. The story had all the hallmarks of one of those stories that have left marks on Canadian governments in the past, which has made it all the easier to latch onto. And the story has so many tentacles, side stories coming out of it and potential effects on other issues that were mostly unrelated that it’s amazing to see the breadth of it.
So far the response of the government has evolved slightly, from a carefully worded denial from the Prime Minister and ministers, to comments from the Prime Ministers office that say Wilson-Raybould initiated any conversations, and even to some MPs trying to attack the reporting and their use of anonymous sources. As you can imagine, none of those have helped clear the air or put this story to bed.
As many other pundits more experienced and better-written than I have pointed out, there is only one person who can clear the air here, and so far, she’s giving the perfunctory “No Comment”. And there in lies the kernel of this story that has the potential to take it from a tiny cut to a concussion inducing uppercut that a heavyweight boxer would admire. At the end of the day, any potential illegal or corrupt behaviour revolves around if the story written by the Globe and Mail is true; did the PMO try to pressure the Minister of Justice and Attorney General to give SNC-Lavalin a break?
Only Minister Wilson-Raybould can answer that question, and as some legal minds have correctly pointed out, the Prime Minister can simply wave and privilege here to clear the air if nothing wrong has been done. It’s that fact that makes the “Jody called Gerry” quotes coming from the PMO seem even odder to me; if that’s the case and they are telling the truth, why not just free Wilson-Raybould to say that herself? Having a source in the PMO say that doesn’t give any more credibility to the words and still leaves them in the same spot, needing her to word to clear the air. If the Minister herself could say it, that would go much further here.
And with that, all of this rests on her shoulders, for better or worse for the government. For as long as the Prime Minister doesn’t free the minister to speak, the questions will continue to linger in the air and of course, there are rumblings and rumours that there is more to come from this story yet. If there was no fire to go with this smoke, now would be the time to clear the air and let her speak.
For the opposition parties going forward though, they need to keep the pressure up and not let this go until we hear from the minister one way or another. The Conservatives have used most of two entire Question Periods to go at the government on this, but in doing a decent job, Andrew Scheer has not been the knockout performer in the chamber to date. This role of interrogator in chief might be better put in the hands of another member of his team, like Lisa Raitt or Erin O’Toole. The NDP have gone after the issue too and it could breathe some new life into not only the caucus, but in their poll numbers over time. But for that to happen, they need to put other issues aside for now and focus on this. Every question they use on another topic right now might be a good question, but it’s one that’s not breaking through in the media cycle with this story. The NDP needs to follow the playbook they used during the Duffy affair when Tom Mulcair made his impact in the chamber but in the minds of all Canadians. Members of their caucus, like Guy Caron and Nathan Cullen are more than capable of putting in such a performance and I hope they decide to follow that example.
This story has all the makings to really shift the narrative in Ottawa and the run up to the Fall election, especially if the government stumbles or the opposition can prosecute this case. For the Prime Minister, this story will be the ultimate litmus test of his trademarked “Sunny Ways” approach, in that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. This story needs some sunlight and it’s the new Minister of Veterans Affairs alone who can really provide it. Right now, a simple “No Comment” won’t do and Canadians deserve to know the truth.