OTTAWA — Gerald Butts has returned to help re-elect the Liberals — but his reappearance has also ignited the flames of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
“Gerald Butts is back, the Lav-scamsters are reunited, and nothing has changed,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre at a news conference at Ottawa’s National Press Theatre Monday. “If Trudeau and Butts are returned to power, we will see more SNC-Lavalin scams. The modus operandi that we saw in this scandal will continue and it will worsen.”
For the Liberals, bringing back Butts — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s longtime friend, confidante, and indispensable adviser — for the election campaign is a gamble that his political skills are worth the cost of giving the opposition parties the gift of resurrecting the scandal.
It may also be a bet that the scandal no longer resonates as deeply with Canadian voters, or at least that voters won’t much notice if it’s revived in the dog days of summer but fades again by the time the campaign kicks off in September.
It had, until now, largely disappeared from the headlines. But for the first part of 2019 the SNC-Lavalin scandal looked like the kind of story that brings down a government. Over the course of the spring it saw the resignations of two cabinet ministers, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott; the clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick, and, of course, the principal secretary to the prime minister, Gerald Butts. No other scandal in recent history has seen the top ranks of government take such a heavy hit.
At the SNC-Lavalin scandal’s core was the allegation that Wilson-Raybould, during her time as justice minister and attorney general, had been inappropriately pressured by top government officials to defer the criminal prosecution of the Montreal-based construction firm. She was shuffled out of the justice minister role in early January.
Wilson-Raybould testified that Butts told her chief of staff that with regards to the public prosecutor’s bribery case against SNC-Lavalin “there is no solution here that does not involve some interference.”
Butts resigned his Prime Minister’s Office job on Feb. 18, 2019. “I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in (the PMO) pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould,” he said in his resignation statement. “But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians. My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”
If Butts had hoped his resignation would take the air out of the scandal, it didn’t work. In the following weeks, the extraordinary testimony from Wilson-Raybould, Wernick and Butts at the House of Commons justice committee brought on a torrent of news coverage. It wasn’t until April 2 that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were ejected from the Liberal caucus and the story petered out.
But Butts’ departure did leave many wondering how Trudeau could ever replace an adviser who had been so crucial over nearly a decade in shaping his political persona and message. As it turns out, no replacement was necessary.
Over the weekend, it was reported — first by CBC, then by other news outlets — that Butts was returning to the Liberal fold, planning to take a senior role in the campaign.
Multiple sources have told the National Post that Butts has been taking part in campaign strategy discussions for a while now. When reached, Butts declined to comment on his role.
One party source said Butts has so far been working on a volunteer basis, but may take on a paid role for the campaign itself as a senior adviser. He would be paid in Liberal Party funds, not government money. (Poilievre used his press conference to point out that it has not been disclosed how much severance Butts was paid when he resigned his PMO job; Treasury Board policies suggest he would have qualified for at least six weeks pay, although the government has declined to confirm how much he actually received.)
The Liberals would have known very well what kind of opposition response Butts’ return would generate. At the scandal’s height, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer even called on Trudeau to resign as prime minister — the nuclear option for an opposition leader’s response.
Poilievre tried to recapture that sense of outrage on Monday, calling it “probably the most grievous example of political interference in our criminal justice system in modern memory.”
“When Gerald Butts took the fall and resigned in disgrace in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Trudeau was trying to tell voters, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson, I’m a changed man’,” Poilievre told reporters. “Justin Trudeau has not changed. There will be more SNC-Lavalin scandals. And we know that because he brought back the very architect of that scandal to serve at the centre of his decision-making organization.”
But Liberals see Butts as a different architect: the one who helped build a campaign focused on the middle class (and, as the slogan goes, those working hard to join it) that took them from third place to a majority government in 2015.
“Gerry is a huge asset to the Liberal team,” said Kevin Bosch, who worked in the federal Liberal “war room” in six election campaigns from 2000 to 2015, and is now a consultant for Hill and Knowlton Strategies. He described Butts as “one of the smartest strategic thinkers” he’s ever worked with.
Bosch said that despite the SNC-Lavalin baggage, Liberals will see Butts’ return as good news — and not just because of his campaign skills. Butts fills a unique role because of his decades of friendship with Trudeau, going back to their university days.
“He knows how to channel and amplify Trudeau’s strengths,” Bosch said. “As the saying goes, ‘Only a friend can tell you when your face is dirty.’ So he can be blunt with any criticism or correction that he thinks is necessary.”
The election is scheduled for Oct. 21. The campaign, barring any big surprises, is likely to kick off in the first half of September.
Wilson-Raybould, MP for Vancouver-Granville, and Philpott, MP for Markham-Stouffville, have announced they will run as independents.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019