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THOMAS WALKOM: Wilson-Raybould still in control

['Thomas Walkom']
Thomas Walkom

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want the SNC-Lavalin affair to go away. They will not succeed until former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould is satisfied.

It’s not clear that she will be satisfied until Trudeau resigns as Liberal leader.

From the beginning, this has been a zero-sum game, pitting a popular prime minister against one of his equally popular cabinet stars.

Legal experts can debate whether it was improper for Trudeau and others in the Liberal government to pressure Wilson-Raybould to offer SNC-Lavalin a form of plea bargain instead of charging the Quebec-based engineering firm with bribery and corruption. Economists can debate whether such an offer was necessary to protect the jobs of the roughly 9,000 people across Canada who work for SNC-Lavalin.

But the legal and economic merits of the case have long been overshadowed by the political story – a story driven by Wilson-Raybould.

That political story began in January when Trudeau shuffled her out of the Justice portfolio into veterans affairs. This in itself seemed odd. What seemed odder was that Wilson-Raybould saw fit to issue a statement after the shuffle, noting that as attorney general, she had always fought political interference and spoken truth to power.

Her manifesto was, in effect, an invitation to journalists to look further into the shuffle. To his credit, Globe and Mail reporter Bob Fife took up the invitation and, in February, co-wrote the newspaper story that got this whole business moving.

Whether Wilson-Raybould herself was a source for the Globe story is immaterial. Someone with knowledge of the minister’s thinking told the paper that she had been pressured to offer SNC-Lavalin a plea bargain.

What is material is that she chose not to deny the story or even try to diminish its importance. Instead, she said only that she was barred by the rules of solicitor-client privilege from saying anything. The implication was that she had much to say.

Throughout, Wilson-Raybould controlled the narrative. When Trudeau pointed to the fact that her presence in cabinet suggested confidence in his government, she responded by immediately quitting cabinet.

When Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary, tried to take the fall by resigning, she refocused attention on the prime minister by demanding – and winning – a meeting with the full cabinet. Throughout, she was a master at using the media to promote her message – that if only Trudeau eased the rules, what a story she could tell.

Yet, when the rules were eased, it was never enough. Trudeau waived solicitor-client privilege. He exempted her from the rule of cabinet confidentiality for the period when, as attorney general, she was dealing with SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould used that waiver to deliver four hours of riveting testimony to the Commons justice committee. But still, she said, there was more. If only the prime minister could extend the waiver. If only she could have a chance to rebut Butts.

Throughout, she lobbed political grenades at Trudeau. She compared him to Richard Nixon. She said she remained a loyal Liberal, but had no confidence in the current Liberal prime minister and his cabinet. Her ally, Jane Philpott, made the same point when she quit cabinet.

Belatedly, Trudeau is trying to minimize the damage. He has appointed former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan to conduct an academic investigation into the role of attorney general. He has had the justice committee inquiry shut down. He has blamed everything on the convenient bête noir of poor communications.

But he is not succeeding. Wilson-Raybould still controls the storyline.

In a letter to her Vancouver constituents last week, she promised to remain a Liberal, but do politics differently. She pledged to work with "Canadians across the country" to make politics less self-serving. These are the kinds of things that politicians say when they are planning a leadership run.

Trudeau has been badly wounded by this affair, losing both Butts, and top bureaucrat Michael Wernick.

But if these wounds become mortal, either before or after the October election, Wilson-Raybould is primed and ready to replace him.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.

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