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Wednesdays with Gerry

This morning we heard some very long-awaited testimony from Prime Minister Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary Gerald Butts. Remember, he resigned seemingly forever ago because “he did nothing wrong” and to “not be a distraction”.

Giving those reasons, you kind of expected the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould would have had Butts names all over it. Yet, when she came before the committee, Butts name came up a grand total of two times. What a distraction, hey? So, with that in mind we looked ahead to todays testimony, not exactly sure what we would get or what it would do for the story. The morning would prove to give very few new details and raised more questions than answers:

The best way I can describe Butts testimony was muddled and contradictory. He said that the decision around SNC-Lavalin was all about “policy”, yet he kept repeating the line about all the jobs at risk. Of course, when asked about that allegation about the jobs by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, he sheepishly admitted he had seen no evidence or studies that would prove that these jobs are, in fact, at risk.

Some moments of Butts testimony also managed to make the PMO look more aloof than I think that most of us would have expected. One great example of this was his testimony around the January cabinet shuffle. He repeated the line that if it wasn’t for Scott Brison, nothing would have happened, which didn’t sound good the first time and hasn’t gotten any better with age. But he also went into why he moved Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Justice Minister position. In his and the Prime Minister’s view, they needed her to go to Indigenous Services; he went so far to say that Wilson-Raybould was “right and only person” to take the job.

For two people who have coined the phrase “there is no relationship more important than the one with Indigenous peoples”, as an Indigenous person I’m blown away that they thought that this was a good idea or that she’d accept it. During his first round of testimony Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick testified that Wilson-Raybould would never accept that and that she viewed it as being like the “Indian Agent”. And even in his own testimony, Butts admitted that Jane Philpott raised concerns about this idea, saying that she wouldn’t accept it. Yet they went ahead with this because they thought it was some kind of honour? When did Daniel Snyder start working in the PMO?

That piece of testimony leads to one of only two conclusions; either they knew what they were doing and how bad and insulting this was, or they had no clue about something they should have had more than a clue about? Either scenario looks bad and doesn’t reflect well on the government. And oh yeah, only one of them can be true.

And folks, that’s the big take away from Gerald Butts testimony today; he said that a lot of things that Jody Wilson-Raybould didn’t happen, stuff that she documented and backed up. He said the first he heard of her decision on SNC-Lavalin was on TV last week when she testified, yet she testified that she told the PM in person on September 17th, six months ago. Of course, he also went on to say that he doesn’t think that she could have reached a decision already, yet when asked by NDP MP Murray Rankin if any new evidence had come forward that would lead her to have changed her mind, he said there was none. That’s the kind of contradiction that we saw all morning.

But one thing became pretty clear through out his testimony today; Gerald Butts was doing his damnest to say that Jody Wilson-Raybould was being less than honest without ever daring to say those words or worse. That left this very strange, lingering sensation out there and undercut a fair bit of his testimony.

If the Butts goal for today was to blunt this story in its tracks, he failed on that account. He didn’t do terribly, and it could have gone much worse for the Liberals if he came out on full attack, so the self-restraint that he showed helped some. But the answers were just empty calories; no substance with very little proof to back it up. And when the Committee moved a motion to try to get Butts to table his emails and texts, the Liberals summarily voted it down. Sunny ways indeed.

This afternoon we’ll hear from Mr. Wernick again and that will be another riveting piece of testimony, as we’ll see what he has to say in rebuttal to Mrs. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Butts. But if today is making anything clear, it is that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for a public inquiry is looking more and more like the right idea. No wonder 85% of Canadians are supporting the idea.

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The Day After the Latest Resignation

Yesterday was a much bigger day than most of us expected. The resignation of Jane Philpott was something that many people simply didn’t see coming and had a huge effect on the course of this story. For the government, this was all kinds of bad and there is no way to really avoid that. If you read the columnists from all the major newspapers, that sentiment was unanimous, which is quite the feat when you think about it. It’s a rare day in Canada when all those different opinions land in the same spot, and you know that’s either really good, or really bad. And folks, this has gotten really bad.

So, before we go into the next act of this story tomorrow with the testimony of Gerald Butts in the morning and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick in the afternoon, I just wanted to quickly touch on a few points to come from the days events. Firstly, I have to start with the comments made by the Liberal MP for Gatineau Steve MacKinnon. Steve is a decent guy and while I don’t agree with him on a lot, I got the chance to work with him and his office on a piece of legislation in my last two years on the Hill and he was very collegial. And I say this even though he unseated one of my favourite MPs of all time, Françoise Boivin. But last night he went on CBC’s Power and Politics and made a hash of this story with a simple poor choice of words:

I will just say this; given the history of the Liberal Party of Canada over the past 25 years, the word “entitled” should be completely extracted and banished from the vocabulary of their MPs and staff. That is especially true when talking about a story like this, because I doubt that you want to raise the memories of this:

So, make that another own goal from the Red Team on this story. And it was with that in mind that I read a certain post from the Globe and Mail’s Steve Chase, who broke this story with Bob Fife. Many have said this was just an “Ottawa bubble” story and that no one in the real world cared about it. Well Chase quotes Toronto-area Liberal MP John MacKay on this story, and it really leapt out at me:

This is a phenomenon that I’ve been seeing from other corners, from talking with people from across the country, especially because I talk a lot of politics. More than a few times I’ve had stories relayed to me about conversations they’ve had at the hockey rink, at the library, the grocery store, at work, all over really. Those conversations are about this story, and each time I’ve been told this I’ve asked them one question: What did those people say? Most wanted more information and to hear from more people, but most of them agree that something is up here and that the Prime Minister is hiding something. That’s not a good sign for the government. It’s a sign that this story has broken outside the Ottawa bubble and is resonating with people’s sensibilities.

One last thing I wanted to talk about was an interesting but new development that’s unique to this Parliament. One of the new things to come in this Parliament is the introduction of E-Petitions. Thanks to the work of former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, Canadians can now initiate online petitions through the House of Commons that the government must reply to, just like they do with any other petition. All it needs to go ahead is an MP to sponsor the petition, similar to with paper ones. So, when I saw this tweet appear in my timeline last night, I took specific interest:

It turns out a resident of New Westminster, BC started this petition on the whole SNC-Lavalin scandal and asks for two things; calls on the PM to totally waive privilege to allow Jody Wilson-Raybould to speak fully and calls for a National Inquiry into this scandal. This gives people another way to voice their concerns and engage with the process, but this is the first time I’ve seen e-petitions used on a matter of ethics like this. It’s an interesting development, and I doubt the last time we’ll see it.

So tomorrow promises to be another big day with four hours of testimony before us. We’ll see how much more Mr. Butts and Mr. Wernick have to say, but it will take a lot for it to rebut and outshine what we’ve seen so far from Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. We’ll all be watching and it feels safe to say we’ll have a lot to talk about afterwards.

Philpott Resigns

Wow, for a supposed “nothingburger” of a story, the list of people resigning keeps growing at a fast rate. But folks, this is a big one that takes things to a whole new level:

“There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.” Wow, what a statement that cuts to the heart of this issue and speaks volumes coming from this member. And folks, Jane Philpott has not been just some average Minister; outside of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, she has been the best performing minister in the Liberal caucus. She took on tough portfolios and did such a good job as Indigenous Services Minister that when she was shuffled out of there in January that some voiced their concern about having lost such a great minister in that portfolio.

So why resign now? Well Philpott makes this very clear and leaves very little ambiguity about her feelings and the reasons behind it. Here are her own words from her statement:

However, I have been considering the events that have shaken the federal government in recent weeks and after serious reflection, I have concluded that I must resign as a member of Cabinet.

In Canada, the constitutional convention of Cabinet solidarity means, among other things, that ministers are expected to defend all Cabinet decisions. A minister must always be prepared to defend other ministers publicly, and must speak in support of the government and its policies. Given this convention and the current circumstances, it is untenable for me to continue to serve as a Cabinet minister.
Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me. Those concerns have been augmented by the views expressed by my constituents and other Canadians.

The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system. It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases. Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.

http://jphilpott.liberal.ca/news-nouvelles/statement/

That just speaks for itself and says many things. Firstly, it points out that the government has mismanaged their response to this whole issue and it has exacted serious consequences. It also raises the question about just how many other people in the Liberal caucus or cabinet feel the same way. Jane Philpott is a big member of Team Trudeau and seeing her make this decision for this reason will give a lot of cover for others who may feel the same way to also speak out. We’ll see how many others make use of that cover in the days ahead.

Also, I think this speaks to something I wrote about earlier and posted just minutes before this story broke. With her words, it’s been made pretty clear that Philpott was uncomfortable with how the government has behaved here, to the point where she couldn’t stay in cabinet. Maybe she also believed the words found in her mandate letter, words that said things like “we have promised Canadians a government that will bring real change – in both what we do and how we do it.” Philpott was doing a good job on the “what” part in her portfolios, but it seems now that she had a real issue with the Prime Ministers office viewed the “how” things should be done.

Going forward now there are a few questions that I have that I will be looking for answers to. Firstly, is Philpott the last Cabinet Minister or Parliamentary Secretary to step aside for the same reasons. Secondly, what happens with the dynamic of this caucus and specifically, does everyone stay in it or do some leave? Everyone has been speculating if Jody Wilson-Raybould was removed from caucus what might happen, but now that Jane Philpott is in this part of the story, what happens with her. I always thought that if Jody Wilson-Raybould was removed that a couple other backbenchers may join her. But if Philpott goes, how many might? Maybe enough to form an official party caucus in the House?

Finally you can’t help but wonder what is coming down the pipe from the PMO, especially with Gerald Butts scheduled to testify before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Wednesday. Does the PMO planning on going after Wilson-Raybould more aggressively than they have so far? If so, did Philpott or other cabinet members know this? I know nothing to that effect but you have to wonder what changed over the past few days to bring this decision on.

We’ll learn more as the next few days go on but the one constant in this story for the PM and the Liberals is that it just keeps getting worse and worse. Philpott’s resignation is a huge loss for this government and is a talent that the PM simply can’t replace. This government is much weaker for this today, but as Philpott states, this is due to the actions of the PM. It’s clear though that Jane Philpott is an MP of impeccable ethics and morals, and if we take anything away from today, lets reflect on the fact that. There are still very good people in elected life who will make the right decision based on ethics and what is right. When they stand up like this, it raises the bar for all MPs, and that makes our country a better place.

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.”

https://pm.gc.ca/eng/minister-justice-and-attorney-general-canada-mandate-letter-november-12-2015

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.