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Shade Instead of Sunshine

Today Canada was watching closely at a bit of drama that unfolded in certain committee room in downtown Ottawa. Calling an emergency meeting of a House of Commons Committee is not an everyday event, but when the situation warrants it, they come. I’ve had the chance to take part in more than a few of them in the past, with the most recent coming in September when the Natural Resources committee called a meeting to discuss the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Calling such a meeting is one of the few tools that the Opposition has in our system, as all it takes is for four members of a committee to request that meeting for it to automatically happen. In this Parliament, that’s meant three Conservatives and one New Democrat can come together to call such a session.

That is what happened today, as the Conservatives and New Democrats called for a meeting of the House of Commons Justice Committee. They called it to try to initiate a study on the whole SNC/PMO scandal, to get answers and get to the bottom what happened. The Liberal members on the committee controlled the outcome, as they hold the majority of the seats in the committee itself. So it was all in their hands as to where this all went, and what happened.

In the majority of these kinds of special meetings, the government tends to simply just vote down the suggested motion and try to get everything done within 15 minutes; that’s what they did with the meeting I mentioned above back in September. But given the gravity of this story, and how badly the government has managed it to so far, the simple tactic of “refuse and hope it goes away” really wasn’t an option.

So what did the Liberals on the committee do? Well they tried to outsmart everyone and in the process, only seemed to have outsmarted themselves. The Liberal members came to the committee with a motion of their own, one that was on their terms and was their attempt to re-spin this story. To best explain the difference between the two motions, I will explain them like this: The Conservatives brought a motion to have a study to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in this case while the Liberals brought a motion to have a study about how Attorney Generals operate properly, the Parliamentary conventions involved and seeks to explain how the government did no wrong.

In the committee the Liberals went to great pains to say “hey, we’re offering to do something, and you’re still mad…. There’s no pleasing you!!!” while trying to ignore the actual matter at hand. Listening to the government members of the committee, it became very clear very fast that there was no clear message from them, as their explanations and excuses kept running into one another. And when that was pointed out by the opposition, indignant cries of “partisanship” flew from their mouths in reply.

The best example of the talking points and strategy simply not adding up here was the inclusion of a witness list in the Liberal motion. The Liberals motion included three witnesses, including two who have publicly said on the record there is nothing to see here. Their motion did not include 6 people the Conservatives had in theirs, including Jody Wilson-Raybould herself. In an attempt at compromise, NDP MP Nathan Cullen tried to amend the Liberal suggestion to add a few more witnesses, including Wilson-Raybould.

That brought an explanation that was a car wreck of logic; Liberal members said they couldn’t discuss witnesses to invite in public because that is not how things are done in committee. And if it stopped there they actually had a point; almost all House of Commons committees that I worked on in the past determined things like witness lists “In Camera” (also known as a private session). But there was a big problem with their logic; They included three witnesses in the motion, in public. So why was it alright to discuss those three names in public, but not others? It made no sense and was a clear gaffe on the behalf of the Liberals. When you add to it the indignant words from some government members pleading this was all a “Witch Hunt” (hmmmm… where have I heard that before?), it made it all look worse.

And really that was how most of the meeting went on the government benches. This was seriously one of the worst attempts at the old “bringing out your own motion to blunt the one you don’t like” plan that I have ever seen. The plan seemed to be half-baked, underestimated the other side of the table and was poorly executed. It was seriously ham-fisted and did nothing to help their cause. It was so bad that it even made a below-average performance from some Conservatives on the committee look better by comparison, which was quite the feat.

Today’s performance before the House of Commons Justice committee was simply a bad sign for the government and another bad day to add to the past week of them. Today they could have really taken some of the air out of this by seriously considering the Conservative motion and going ahead with it, as is. If they had, they would have a chance to appear much more transparent in this whole matter and would have been the best place available to try to mitigate the damage.

But by trying to deny the chance for Jody Wilson-Raybould to speak before the committee, and formally voting in public to not call her, it gives her greater credibility. And they did that, despite the fact that there are no guarantees that she will ever actually be able to speak due to the privilege concerns. They could have invited her, be seen to not be afraid of what she might say, and have a legit chance she never gets to say a word. But instead they went out of their way to try to shut her down today, shut down questions being asked and tried to suffocate it all with the Parliamentary equivalent of a university lecture series.

Those are not the actions of a confident government and those are not the actions of someone with nothing to hide; they are quite the opposite and just raise more questions. In the span of a week, the government has managed to completely lose control of this story, has missed multiple opportunities to deal with it head on and really have no one but themselves to blame for the mess they find themselves in. Is it too late to correct course? It’s hard to say but these are the kinds of things that can happen when your words say you’re all about “Sunny Ways” while your actions continue to show you throwing shade. After a while, people start to notice when the sun doesn’t come around that much anymore.


Deeper and Deeper

24 hours can feel like a lifetime in politics, and right now I bet that the Prime Ministers office would agree. Today’s big news of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from the Liberal cabinet was quite the shock to the system, almost more because of how it happened rather than it actually happened.

When the Globe and Mail story broke last week and the Prime Minister’s team refused to give a clear answer to the obvious questions that came from that reporting, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before something gave. Something had to give, either allowing the honourable Minister to speak and waiving privilege to allow that, or she had to leave cabinet, either by her own choice or by the PM’s choosing.

The fact that it took until six days for that “something” to happen is not good, and I would argue that for the government, this was the worst option for their hopes to putting this story to bed. If they had done nothing wrong, then allowing Wilson-Raybould to speak would have been the best option. She could have given her side of things and this story might have died right there.

By not taking that option, you were really only the left with the option of her leaving cabinet because there was no way for her to stay there under these circumstances without this issue being addressed. But when it came to that, the PM made it pretty clear last night that he didn’t plan on removing her from cabinet. It made that clear with his now famous statement that “her presence in cabinet should speak for itself”, as if her presence there was some kind of tacit approval of the governments story and approach.

If the PMO had been paying full attention here or truly practicing those “sunny ways” approach that they ran on, they would have seen the dangers and how this result would have come. It seems that through out all of this that they have underestimated her and thought they could push her back into place with no fall out. That’s hubris that’s now coming back to bite them in the rear.

Trying to make the case for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin was already going to be very difficult politically, especially in an election year. Adding this whole scandal on top of that raises the bar of difficulty that much more, then adding to that is the news that’s come out today that SNC may now be facing more charges in relation to a contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge. That makes this that much harder for the government to do, let alone explain. And given that this government changed the law in the last budget to create the loophole to allow that agreement, there is nowhere else they can point a finger of blame. All of this right now is of their own doing.

Going forward though we’ll see where the story leads. We still have a lot to hear from Jody Wilson-Raybould, and by retaining a former Supreme Court Justice as her counsel to advise her, you get a strong impression that she does plan on speaking at some point. Further to that, this whole story has managed to do deep damage to the Prime Ministers relationship with Indigenous peoples, as we’ve seen more and more Indigenous leaders come to Jody’s defense, on the record. Being a big part of the Liberals coalition that helped to elect them in 2019, this will have lasting consequences beyond this scandal.

Tomorrow we’ll see the House of Commons Justice Committee have an emergency meeting to try to start a study on this issue. We’ll also see if the Liberals on the committee try to kill this in it’s tracks, or if they allow it to go ahead. Trying to kill it would look even worse given todays news, but so far that kind of consideration hasn’t stopped the PMO from other attempts to stop this that now look just as bad.

If we can say anything for sure about this week, it’s that if anything is going to change the narrative going into this Fall’s election, one that seemed so set in stone, this is probably it. This story brings back old narratives from past governments that this Prime Minister had no connection to, and puts a lot of tarnish on the narrative that they are better than before. Add to that yesterdays news about the Ethics Commissioners investigation, an amazing 5th investigation in less than four years of this government. And that doesn’t include economic anxieties that are out there and other pressures coming from all over, this does not bode well for the government.

Now if any of the opposition parties can actually take advantage of this or present a better image to the Canadian public, that remains to be seen. Before today none of them have shown that they are able to. But you never which straw will actually be the one that breaks the camels back and brings everything crashing down. I’d rather not play around and find that out by testing it, but to avoid testing it you need to have control of your message and such.

Right now the government has lost that; they created a vacuum by trying to get out of this by saying nothing, and now the narrative is getting pretty firmly set by others, events and a now-former Cabinet minister. We’ll see what happens tomorrow at the Justice committee and we’ll see what extra oxygen is brought into this story, but one thing is clear here; this has made the jump from “story” to “scandal”. It took us only six days to get here and heck, it’s only Tuesday. This might prove to be the longest break week this government has had so far.

Horror Vacui

When it comes to the world that we live in, it’s amazing how some principles from one field remain very true in others. In regards to politics the world over, it’s equally amazing how some of the principles of physics apply just as well in the political sphere. And think when you think about it, it’s very true. “What does up, must come down”, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and many others. In modern politics, so same laws apply in democratic societies and we have numerous examples of those.

But in following the news over the weekend and into today the big news in the Canadian political scene right now, the SNC scandal, another law came to mind for me that speaks so well to what we are seeing unfold before us; “nature abhors a vacuum”. Politics abhors a vacuum too, and right now we are witnessing what happens when a political vacuum is created and it’s not dealt with. So what is the vacuum we have now? The continued silence from the Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

It’s a silence that has become more and more troublesome for the government as the days have dragged along in this scandal. And with every speaking point the government has come out with that does not involve the Minister giving her side of the story, that vacuum gets bigger, hungrier and continues to spread.

Today we saw the Ethics Commissioner announce that he will be accepting the NDP’s request to investigate this matter, stating in his reply letter to the NDP that “I have reason to believe that a possible contravention of Section 9 may have occurred”. That section “prohibits a public office holder from seeking to influence a decision of another person so as to improperly further another person’s private interest.” We also saw two Liberal backbench members speaking out, one from New Brunswick supporting the Oppositions call for a Justice Committee study, the other speaking out in support of Minister Wilson-Raybould. By the way, that meeting will be taking place on Wednesday afternoon and we’ll see what the government members do there, especially after the new Justice Minister David Lametti took to the airwaves on the weekend to state that he believed the PM and felt here was no evidence to support such a study. Oh yeah, then today he was quoted stating that a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin could still be on the table. Hmmmmm….

That was all topped off with two bits of news from the end of the day. Firstly, the Prime Minister stated that while Minister Wilson-Raybould can’t speak due to privilege (which the PM himself can waive), he could tell us all that he spoke with her in the past day. And according to the PM, “she confirmed” to him that they supposedly had a conversation about this and everything is hunky-dory. So let me get this straight; he invokes privilege to keep the Minister from speaking about her side of the story, but then goes onto give us his version of her side of the story? This is just odd and contradictory, especially in that how do you get to invoke privilege, but then talk about the privileged topic supposedly on the behalf of the person who can’t speak because of that same privilege? And then we’re just supposed to accept that all as the end of it? Nah sorry, that doesn’t wash and brings about a lot more questions than it answers. And like last week, the only person who can answer those questions is Jody Wilson-Raybould. But the second story to come out this afternoon adds a whole other layer to this situation that could get extremely sticky for the government. In the case of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, a case in which the government has stuck to privilege too, a development came out that not only causes problems for the crown in this case, but puts the SNC case in a potentially different and more problematic light.

The federal government is fighting defence requests for the release of un-redacted notes from meetings between officials at the Privy Council Office (PCO) and Crown lawyers.
In an email sent to Norman’s lawyers on Friday, one of the lead prosecutors, Barbara Mercier, said the documents being sought by the defence are being censored because they deal with “trial strategy” and censoring them is entirely appropriate.
“We maintain that discussions about how to run the trial are protected by litigation privilege,”  Mercier wrote.
That prompted defence counsel Christine Mainville to accuse the Prime Minister’s Office of trying to direct the case.
She also said the Crown should not be discussing strategy with PCO because the PCO instigated the investigation into an alleged leak of cabinet secrets Norman has been accused of orchestrating.

This discovery led the judge in this case to quip on the record “so much for the independence of the PPSC”. So here we now see the allegation that the Privy Councils Office, the civil service side of the PMO, was discussing a trial and its strategy with the crown. That is a huge no-no and raises a lot more questions in this case. But to make matters worse for the government, this story starts to have eerie similarities to the SNC case. Happening once might be an accident, but a similar thing that’s such a clear no-no happening twice? That starts to raise a lot of questions.

So in the span of less than a week, we’ve seen this story grow wider and wider, with the vacuum the government left open growing bigger and filling more and more of the story. It was said by many pundits on Thursday that if Minister Wilson-Raybould spoke out then and there was really nothing to this story, it would have killed it in it’s tracks. If that had happened, do you see backbenchers starting to get antsy? Do you give NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh the oxygen of a story where he seems to be starting to find his feet? Do you end up with this similarity with another big legal case? And do you end up with so many of your talking points that you’ve come to rely on in other cases, like “we are a country of laws”, getting blown up?

No one can say for sure but it feels safe to say that things would have been mitigated much more by the Minister speaking. So in the meantime, that vacuum that was created by the governments silence on this issue has been filled, and ably so by their opponents and circumstance, and now this issue is much messier and muddled than it was before. Yes, nature does abhor a vacuum and we’re seeing the effect of that in politics right now in spades.

No Comment

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.

The Politician We Aspire To Be

Being involved in politics for over a decade, one gets to have many great experiences and gets to know many amazing people. I know that’s the case for me, and when I think back to some of the events I got to see first hand or the stories I have to pass along to my daughter and someday grandchildren, I can’t help but smile. And on a night like tonight, I can’t help but go back to those stories.

As you may have read elsewhere, this afternoon we lost a good man and a great public servant, far too soon. Former NDP MP Paul Dewar passed away at 56, a year after he shook so many of us with the news that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Paul served three terms as the MP for Ottawa-Centre, and served as the NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic for most of that time, a role that he served in with great distinction.

I count myself as blessed to have gotten to know Paul in my time on Parliament Hill, especially over a three-year period during the last Parliament when I got to be part of the team staffing NDP MPs in the Foreign Affairs committee. But my first introduction to how good a person Paul was coming long before I met him in the workplace. In 2007, I was blessed with the chance to take part in political action training for equity seeking groups through my union at the time, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. In that training, we were presented with many great examples of teachers getting involved politically and how they could make change, and Paul was one of their proudest examples, as a former Elementary teacher himself. And that pride went beyond his elected position; they told us that you could be a good person in political life and not have to sacrifice your decency to do so. Paul was a shining example of that, and while I didn’t agree with him all the time on policy matters, he showed how it could be done daily.

But it was when I got to Parliament Hill that I got to see that example up close, not only in how he acted publicly but how he maintained that same level demeanour in private. He was the consummate team player, who led by example. In a city of civil servants, he loved to serve his community and to help to make it better. He led with his heart and didn’t hold ill will against those who disagreed with him, which can be extremely difficult to do inside the bubble of Parliament Hill in the best of times.

In the last year, while fighting against this disease, Paul didn’t stop. In a last letter from Paul that was released tonight, he continued in that positive spirit of service and giving to the community and country. Last year he started “Youth Action Now” to help mentor and teach the next generations of leaders. Even in the darkest hours, he kept thinking positively and thinking ahead to the future. That was Paul, who he was and who I will always remember.

So tonight I know that I will be saying a little prayer, thanking Paul for what he gave us in his time here, the example that he gave us that will live on forever, and think of all the giving he will continue to do in Heaven. Thank you, Merci, Miigwetch and Marsii Paul for being you and for making our country a better place.

In the stoic stillness of my journey,
I have found my way to peace.
May you keep building a more peaceful and better world for all.
Let this sacred ground be a place for all.
Let the building of a better world begin with our neighbours.
May we dream together.
May we gather our courage and stand together in moments of despair,
and may we be bound together by joyous celebration of life.
We are best when we love and when we are loved.
Shine on like diamonds in the magic of this place.
My love to you always,