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A week after news of the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio broke, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick gave a speech.
It was about a week before he testified for the first time at the House of Commons justice committee, where his opening remarks seemed unduly lurid for the country’s top civil servant.
In particular, I refer to his fear that “the rising tides of incitements to violence” online could see “somebody … shot in this country this year, during the political campaign.”
But on Feb. 14, Wernick was speaking at a conference for government communications specialists.
He spoke about the need for public servants “to be very mindful of our role as a public service that this and future governments will trust …
“… You are where the fresh water and the salt water meet: the boundary between a non-partisan public service and the partisan politics of a lively democracy.
“This is not always an easy place to be.”
Monday, having sewn the seeds of confusion over how well or not he himself recognized that boundary, Wernick was swept away by those very same forces.
He announced his resignation, the fourth casualty of the SNC-Lavalin fiasco, the others being deposed attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould, former treasury board boss Jane Philpott, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerry Butts.
Wernick alluded to “recent events” having led him to conclude he couldn’t continue as clerk during the upcoming federal election.
“One of the key roles of the Privy Council Office is to be ready to assist whatever government Canadians elect in October.
“It has been my privilege to work with the transition teams of three prime ministers,” he said. “It is now apparent that there is no path for me to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the leaders of the Opposition parties.”
That’s because various opposition members, including Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and New Democratic ethics critic Charlie Angus, had called for Wernick to resign in the wake of his appearances at the justice committee. Angus said in an open letter to the PM that Wernick was “deeply compromised” and had “overstepped his role.”
He also expressed concern that as a member of the newly formed “critical election incident public protocol,” a panel given the task of alerting the public to serious cases of foreign interference in the October election, Wernick, as someone who Angus said had revealed himself to be “a clear political acto,” couldn’t purport to “sit above the election as someone that we should all trust…”
It was an ignominious finale to a 37-year career in the public service that saw Wernick hold senior executive positions in governments of Liberal and Conservative stripes and culminated in him taking over as clerk in 2016.
Though the full story of SNC-Lavalin’s unofficial lobbyists (Wernick, Trudeau, Butts and other senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office) has yet to be told, even by Wernick’s own testimony he was certainly an active part of it.
He serenely acknowledged having told Wilson-Raybould — well after her director of public prosecutions had decided SNC-Lavalin wouldn’t get the deferred prosecution agreement, or DPA, it had been so ardently seeking for four years and Wilson-Raybould had decided not to overrule her — that her cabinet colleagues and the PM were quite concerned about the potential effects the SNC prosecution might have. He agreed that he wondered aloud whether a DPA was still an option.
His view was that yes, this was pressure, but merely pressure to get the decision right. He appeared oblivious to or unworried by the fact that the attorney-general is a creature like no other, meant to stand apart and independent, and that any pressure after she has made a decision is inappropriate.
(Wilson-Raybould described this meeting and a later phone call very differently and in much more ominous terms.)
As an indication of how Wernick saw himself, as a man of improbably high non-partisan standards, he told the justice committee that, why, he had walked out on a dinner at the National Arts Centre when he saw that SNC had bought a table.
Alas, he failed to mention (later, he said he’d been interrupted in giving his chronology of events) that he’d taken a call from one of his clerk predecessors, Kevin Lynch, now the chairman of SNC’s board, who was making a last-ditch effort to get the company that DPA.
Wernick said he took the call because Lynch is the board chair, the “company is not a pariah” and besides, the DPA was still “a live issue.”
When Conservative MP Lisa Raitt asked him, this at his second committee appearance, if he could understand how Canadians might be disturbed “to see that former clerks who are now chairs of boards of SNC-Lavalin have easy access and immediate access into the central office of this government,” Wernick replied, “No.”
Those were ringing words he told the government communications folks on Valentine’s Day: “…Our whole system of democracy and the rule of law rests of trust, trust of the governed in their governments and trust that the system is fair.
“It may be noisy, it may not always work, but it is fair. The people have a say, and the people are heard. It is not rigged for any special interest.”
Lovely words — not rigged for any special interest — but the conduct didn’t match.
Kevin Lynch is on the line?
Oh well then.