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The SNC-Lavalin affair is heavy enough to drag down the Prime Minister and with him, the federal Liberals. It did just that all spring.
Now that the federal election’s only about nine weeks off, Liberals have to hope the resurrection of the affair – with the ethics commissioner’s finding that Justin Trudeau violated the conflict law – lands as old news, that the controversy – scandal? – is “baked in” to voters’ calculations, which pollsters say put the Liberals back in position to win in October. But most of all, they hope the Lavalin sequel has a short run.
The Liberals intend to push through Lavalin 2.0 with a hint of contrition – Trudeau accepted “full responsibility” for the fiasco; a dash of bravado – the PM won’t apologize for fighting for Canadian jobs; and a promise to do better.
Predictably, none of that’s good enough for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer who rendered a verdict of “unforgivable” on the PM’s transgressions.
Scheer has contended, almost from the day this story broke in early February, that Trudeau’s efforts to influence former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould constitute a capital offence.
The Conservative leader didn’t repeat his call for Trudeau’s head this week, allowing that Canadians will have a chance to take it soon enough, but he does think the Mounties ought to get involved. The Conservatives also want an emergency meeting of the Common ethics committee which wouldn’t accomplish much but would be excruciating political drama for Liberals. It’s not going to happen.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took a different tack. The entire SNC-Lavalin affair, he said, is proof that the Liberals, like the Conservatives before them, put the interests of their privileged friends and big corporations ahead of the interests of most Canadians. Evidence in support of the claim notwithstanding, it sounds like standard NDP fare and when you’re mired a distant third in the polls it might be time to refresh the menu.
Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion’s 60-page report on the Lavalin affair pretty much echoes the testimony Wilson-Raybould gave to Parliament’s Justice Committee on Feb. 27.
Dion recounts a number of incidents where the Prime Minister’s staff attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould, then justice minister and attorney general, to consider options other than that taken by the director of public prosecutions, who decided SNC-Lavalin should stand trial on criminal corruption charges related to the company’s wheeling, dealing and alleged bribery in Libya a decade ago.
Dion’s report suggests SNC-Lavalin successfully lobbied to include an amendment to the criminal code allowing for deferred prosecution agreements (DPA) in the 2018 omnibus budget bill. A DPA is an alternative to a criminal trial, whereby a corporation would admit its wrongdoing, pay a fine, but would avoid additional sanctions that accompany a criminal conviction.
Those additional sanctions include disqualification from publicly-funded contracts for 10 years, and the Liberals say their efforts on behalf of SNC-Lavalin were to avoid that kind of punishment which could cost the engineering giant’s innocent, present-day employees their jobs.
Dion said the prime minister, or his staff acting on his direction, attempted to influence Wilson-Raybould to take action that would benefit a third party, SNC-Lavalin. That’s a violation of the conflict-of-interest act, according to Dion.
The Lavalin affair consumed the national political oxygen all spring. The Liberals fell behind the Conservatives in virtually every poll and seemed to be headed for electoral defeat. But the controversy subsided, and the Liberals recovered to the point where October’s election looks like a toss-up, with the Liberals holding a slight edge. At least that was the lay of the land before Dion reported.
If Liberals are looking for small mercies, they should find them in the release of the report in the final, precious days of summer when most Canadians have better things to do than follow political intrigue.
In the days to come, the Conservatives will be looking to keep the resurrected affair in the public eye, while the Liberals will do everything they can to turn the page. This week’s cavalcade of ministers expressing their confidence in the prime minister isn’t a good look for any government, and it’s particularly troublesome for a government seeking re-election in a race that’s too tight to call.
The impact of Lavalin 2.0 on the outcome of the election depends almost entirely on its staying power. If we’re still talking about SNC-Lavalin after Labour Day, the Liberals have real trouble.