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You see the phrase ‘political performance’ a lot in this business. But the truth is, most politicians, even good ones, can’t perform worth a damn. They’re hams, most of them, by necessity. In politics, nuance doesn’t sell.
That’s what made what Marie Henein did Wednesday so remarkable. For more than 30 minutes, she performed in the truest sense. She put on a piece of political theatre — complete with shrugs, half smiles and quiet asides — that was as understated as it was devastating.
In front of the assembled Ottawa press corps, Henein flayed the prime minister without ever mentioning his name. She never said the words “SNC-Lavalin,” either even as she linked her client’s case, indelibly, to that festering scandal.
Henein was speaking to reporters Wednesday after the charges against her client, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, were stayed in a surprise court appearance. The prosecutor told the court that, after reviewing new evidence, the Crown no longer felt it had a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction in the case.
The decision was a massive win for Henein and her client. The politically-charged case against Norman — he was accused of leaking confidential material related to a ship building contract — had come to centre in the public eye, like the SNC affair, around an accusation of political interference in a high-profile prosecution.
The SNC-Lavalin affair has come to define the later part of Trudeau’s tenure in office. And on Wednesday, Henein kept the focus on Trudeau, and his brand, from the moment she sat down.
“Before we get started,” she began, “I’d just like to introduce the” — at this point she paused for half a beat and allowed herself the slightest smile — “ all female team that represented Vice-Admiral Norman.” She delivered her next line in a stone-faced deadpan. “Fortunately Vice-Admiral Norman didn’t fire the females he hired.”
The reference to Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott could not have been clearer if it was stencilled in red paint on a white wall in letters a hundred metres tall.
But Henein was far from finished. Again and again, she hammered in references to the SNC-Lavalin affair without ever making them direct. “The decision to stay this prosecution,” she said, “was discretion exercised by prosecutors and the (Director of Public Prosecutions), unimpacted by any political considerations, as it should be.”
She delivered that last line with a staccato flair, underlining each word as a separate sentence. She slipped in the next one, the most devastating one, as a casual aside. “That is in fact how things are supposed to work,” she said. “Politics are supposed to stay out of the prosecutorial process.”
Henein took pains to praise the prosecutors in the Norman case for their integrity and professionalism. She was not as kind about the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, which she blamed collectively for withholding a host of documents, over months and even years, that she felt were crucial to her client’s defence.
“You should be very concerned when anyone tries to erode the resilience of the justice system or demonstrates a failure to understand why it is so fundamental to the democratic values we hold so dear,” she said.
“There are times you agree with what happens in a court room there are times you don’t. And that’s fine. But what you don’t do is you don’t put your finger and try to weigh in on the scales of justice. That is not what should be happening.”
Henein was 100 per cent clear on one point: the decision to stay the charges against her client, she said, repeatedly, was an independent one made without political interference. “The prosecutors in a high-profile case looked at the evidence and did what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “They said we don’t have a reasonable prospect of conviction. The DPP acted independently.”
But she followed that, too, up with a thinly veiled barb about the SNC affair, which centred on alleged political interference into the DPP’s decision on whether or not to offer the SNC Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement.
“If it tells you anything, it should tell you that when she (the DPP) thinks she should prosecute, she goes ahead” — at that Henein paused almost imperceptibly and smiled just for an instant — “and when she thinks she shouldn’t, she declines to do so. That’s the way it should be.”
The defence allegations once again put the prime minister on the defensive.
“The process involved in a public prosecution like this is entirely independent of my office,” Justin Trudeau said before the weekly Liberal caucus meeting. “We have confidence in the work done by the director of public prosecutions.”
Henein was later asked if Norman was owed an apology. He has been through a great deal, she replied. “There is a ship, a supply ship, that is in operation, on time and under budget, thanks, in part, to Vice-Admiral Norman.” Here her voice dipped and got a little gravely. “I think it’s time” — she waited half a beat — “to say sorry to him.”
In Ottawa, a world of Tommy Wiseaus, Henein was Meryl Streep on Wednesday. And in one inspired performance, she may have done incalculable damage to the already limping Liberal brand.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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