How the SNC-Lavalin report could impact Liberals’ electoral fortunes
Exceeded the accepted bounds of the influence of the office risks undermining the 'doing politics differently' message.
OTTAWA — The federal ethics watchdog woke up a sleepy summer pre-election period Aug. 14 with a report that found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by putting undue pressure on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to end the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. The report landed with just weeks to go before the start of the Oct. 21 federal election campaign. Here are some of the ways it could hamstring Liberal aspirations:
Friends turned rivals
Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, two prominent former Liberals with intimate knowledge of the SNC-Lavalin affair, are seeking re-election as Independent candidates in their respective ridings of Vancouver Granville, in BC, and Markham – Stouffville, in Ontario. Having been ousted from the Liberal caucus after resigning from cabinet, their campaigns in two important electoral battlegrounds are likely to get an outsized amount of public attention – and they’ve already made it clear they’re no longer supporters of the prime minister.
The Liberals came to power on a promise to do politics differently. It was a message that resonated after nearly a decade of Conservative rule under former prime minister Stephen Harper, who was accused of centralizing too much power in the Prime Minister’s Office and running roughshod over Parliament. Trudeau has been travelling the country this summer talking about how the Liberals plan to invest in Canadians, while warning that voting for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would risk returning to the days of Harper. The ethics commissioner’s report, which tells a story of a prime minister who exceeded the accepted bounds of the influence of the office, risks undermining that message.
Ghost of an ethics violation past
It’s not the first time Trudeau has been scolded for an ethical lapse. In 2017, Mary Dawson, the former ethics commissioner, found Trudeau had contravened four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act when he and his family went on vacation to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims. Trudeau apologized and said he would ask the commissioner to clear all his personal vacations in advance going forward. Then last year, Trudeau had to pay a $100 fine after failing to disclose a pair of sunglasses he had received as a gift from Wade MacLauchlan, then the premier of PEI, within 30 days. All of it “shows a pattern,” said Scheer – a pattern the Conservative leader will no doubt be illustrating during the campaign.
The longtime close friend of Trudeau was a central figure in the SNC-Lavalin scandal; Wilson-Raybould named him as one of the PMO officials who was urging her to halt criminal proceedings against the Montreal engineering firm. Butts denied the allegations, but resigned as Trudeau’s principal secretary, saying he did not want to distract from the government’s agenda. Earlier this summer, media reports emerged that Butts had quietly returned to the Liberal fold to help with the campaign. With a renewed focus on the controversy, will his presence be an asset, or a liability?
Trudeau and his team insisted their sole motivation in lobbying for a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin was a desire to protect jobs. Many of those jobs are in Quebec, which is home to Trudeau’s riding of Papineau and where Liberals currently hold 40 of the province’s 78 seats. Michael Wernick, who retired as clerk of the Privy Council over the affair, had raised the 2018 Quebec election in his conversation with Wilson-Raybould, although he testified he was not motivated by partisanship. While Liberals could be seen as championing the interests of Quebecers, that sort of support can play very differently in other parts of the country.