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It’s been a brand-bending week for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Sunny ways and “doing politics differently” gave way in the heat of battle to tactics straight out of the oldest political playbook on the shelf.
Whatever damage his government sustains from Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation and the events that led there will be determined in the fullness of time. But, from what we’ve seen this week, the Liberal strategy to contain this thing is taking the government into perilous political waters, too.
Since Wilson-Raybould’s resignation on Tuesday, Trudeau has, at each opportunity afforded him, cast aspersions on the former minister’s judgment and professionalism. It was her responsibility to come to him if she felt pressure on the SNC-Lavalin file, and she didn’t do that, says the PM.
That point would be weightier if not for the relevant — if inconvenient — detail that the alleged pressure was coming from the prime minister’s own office.
And, even as the prime minister publicly questions the competence of Canada’s first aboriginal justice minister, he is fully aware that she can’t defend herself.
Wilson-Raybould was attorney general when the spark was ignited to fire this controversy, and as such is constrained by solicitor-client privilege. The attorney general is the government’s de facto lawyer. She’s retained former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell for advice on what she can say.
Trudeau, as head of the government, can waive that privilege and allow for a fair fight, but he hasn’t done that and claims to need some legal advice himself.
“The sunny way,” is a phrase and philosophy Trudeau borrowed from Wilfrid Laurier to describe an optimistic, positive political outlook, where there is no place for personal attacks.
Yet, when the heat got turned up, Trudeau chose to defend his government by maligning his defenceless ex-minister.
That choice isn’t playing well among folks who make up a significant slice of the loose coalition Trudeau and the Liberals cobbled together to win the 2015 election.
The Liberal strategy to contain this not-yet-full-blown scandal is old-school, bare-knuckle politics.
As the messenger-in-chief, the prime minister’s role is to proclaim the purity and innocence of his government and defame its presently silent critic. Sooner or later, Wilson-Raybould is likely to tell her side of the story, and the Liberals figure that won’t be their finest hour, so they’ll do whatever damage they can to her credibility in the meantime.
Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, at a meeting of the Commons’ justice committee forced by the Conservatives to address the growing controversy, another critical element of the Grit strategy emerged.
It, too, is from the standard political playbook.
The Liberals on the justice committee showed their hand when they passed a motion calling just three witnesses, and Wilson-Raybould is not one of them. Their goal is to distract attention from the central issue by focusing on the periphery until Canadians lose interest.
The allegation at the core of all this is that the PMO pressured then-Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould to get a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for SNC-Lavalin, thus saving the giant Quebec-based construction and engineering company from criminal prosecution on the corruption charges it faces.
As events unfolded, SNC-Lavalin did not get a DPA offer, and Wilson-Raybould got shuffled out of Justice and off to Veterans Affairs. Coincidence?
The Liberals would have you believe so.
As it plays out, the containment strategy strikes a dissonant chord with the brand the Liberals built around their leader and rode to a majority government in 2015.
The prime minister is publicly questioning the competence and judgment of his former justice minister, who is also an accomplished aboriginal woman and was once considered the brightest star in the Liberal constellation.
The Liberals’ performance in the justice committee — including the accusation that the opposition is launching a witch hunt — was old-style political damage control.
The Liberals know that their strategy will cost them votes — from First Nations, from women, and from Canadians who bought into the promise that they’d “do politics” differently. That’s baked into whatever calculations put them on their present course.
But they choose this strategy despite its obvious political risks, which tells you that the alternatives were even less palatable.