By Trevor Busch
There seems to never be a dull moment these days in Canadian politics. As the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comes to grips with the SNC-Lavalin affair, its reverberations in the corridors of power in Ottawa could have the potential to drive a steely-blue Tory stake right through the heart of the Liberal’s re-election efforts in 2019. While that would be sure to warm the cockles of many a Westerner less enthusiastic about Trudeau’s dreamy coiffure than they are about getting a pipeline to tidewater, you should never underestimate the electoral scruples of a prime minister with Trudeau’s pedigree.
While many Canadians and Canadian politicians from Trudeau the Elder’s era may have hated the prime minister — and that is really not too strong a phrase to use — they also recognized a cut-throat political operator when they saw one, an intelligent and charismatic leader to be underestimated only at an Opposition party’s peril — which, in fact, was a key reason he was able to propel his party through successive election wins in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Grudgingly respected by all and probably even feared by some, Pierre Trudeau was always a ballot-box threat, a constant thorn in the side of more dour and unimaginative conservatives like Joe Clark and underwear king Robert Stanfield.
Trudeau the Younger may not have proven himself to be cut from exactly the same cloth as his father, but we’ve seen flashes of the old Trudeaumania during the 2015 election campaign — updated for the 21st century through social media, rather than Beatles-style crowds of swooning young women — and he has proven he can turn on the charm on the hustings when needed to help secure a majority outcome. Most election strategists in Canada would contend it is probably good advice to never underestimate a Trudeau.
No matter what scandals may arise in the lead up, the near-constant 24-hour news cycle that assaults our eyes and ears every hour of every day — either literally or metaphorically — ensures that all of us in the general public are very adept at living in the scandal of the moment but not always at remembering what might have mattered about it six months or a year down the road. Canadians have always been notoriously fickle when it comes to this kind of thing, and it will be the task of the Liberal’s Opposition foes to keep this issue fresh and relevant in the eyes of Canadians before it gets shelved in our memories as “just another federal controversy.”
The fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair, of course, cannot be underestimated. While a lot more questions remain to be answered about whether the prime minister or cabinet’s actions may have amounted to criminality, few Canadians would probably argue that what has come to light wasn’t at least inappropriate, if not grossly unethical. And this adds only more fuel to the fire — indeed what some would call confirmation — that Canada’s politicians are simply a self-interested cabal of greedy, unscrupulous operators ready to sell their own mothers into indentured servitude for a chance to get their filthy trotters shank-deep in an ocean of taxpayer cash.
The old adage that one bad apple spoils the bunch has never been more apt when referring to the actual dedicated politicians and civil servants — probably the vast majority — that pour their hearts and intellects into achieving results for Canadians. It will never be a popular sentiment — painting all politicians with the same brush never seems to diminish in popularity — but it is a sweeping generalization that does a great disservice to those who have dedicated their lives to public service.
The independence of the judiciary is a foundational element of many Western democracies, and it now appears quite clear that the Liberals may have overstepped some important boundaries. But governments, and cabinets, still need to discuss critical issues like the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, and where discussion drifts into pressure or undue influence is a very fine line imbued with underlying themes of objectivity and subjective analysis. That shouldn’t be interpreted as making excuses; it’s simply to say that the issues that cabinets discuss can be incredibly complex, extremely nuanced, and usually very serious. Taking into account the potential job-loss fallout from a full-blown prosecution of the firm isn’t actually inappropriate, if your concern is about citizens and their jobs. But if your concern was actually about Liberal re-election in Quebec, that’s another question entirely. And then, of course, comes the $64,000 question: how do you actually prove it? Through a blizzard of denials, apologies, and passing the buck, that outcome becomes more and more forlorn in today’s government scandals.
Not that Canada’s judiciary, in a limited sense, has trouble interfering in government policy-making on a regular basis. Every time a law is struck down or a decision reversed by the Supreme Court, the judiciary is altering the law-making process. As, indeed, it is designed to do. However, in Canada due to our Constitution’s ponderous amending formula, the Supreme Court has often functioned as a defacto body of last appeal for government. Few governments have ever been willing to put issues to a national referendum that may have been overruled by the Supreme Court, and consequently, some have suggested the appointed Court exercises a nebulous extra-legal power in Canada by virtue of its position and the failure of other legislation to function as it was originally designed.
And although not totally forgotten in this whole scandal at the forefront of Canadian politics, SNC-Lavalin’s part in this murky act of political theatre should not be forgotten, if only for the fact that it appears to cast an unfavourable light on how power-politics is actually brokered in Canada at the federal level.
Say what you will about the Liberals’ actions, if this is how huge firms and giant corporations avoid prosecution and end up paying piddling fines for highly-illegal activities — lobbying the federal cabinet for a slap on the wrist — this calls the whole administration of justice into disrepute. How many corporations do this on a regular basis? How often is this lobbying successful? And darker and more troubling still, does this encourage illegal corporate behaviour because the potential gains far outweigh the risks? What CEO might not consider bribing this tin-pot African dictator or that sub-Saharan warlord if the result is billions in contracts with no risk of prosecution?
The SNC-Lavalin affair has now even reached the level of the Huawei extradition proceedings which has soured Ottawa’s relations with Beijing in early 2019, with China announcing fresh trumped-up espionage charges against two detained Canadian citizens on Monday. Canada stepped into a hornet’s nest between two gargantuan powers — China and the United States — over Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, and Monday’s announcement from the Chinese came on the heels of news that her extradition hearing would move forward. It’s ironic that strong ties to our southern behemoth which had served us so well throughout much of the 20th century is now blackening our reputation on the international stage under the Trump administration as it engages in a trade battle royale with the Chinese. The Chinese have now gleefully latched on to the SNC-Lavalin affair, leveling the allegation — not without significant ammunition — that Trudeau picks and chooses when to interfere in the judicial system while paying lip service to its independence.
It’s now election season in Western Canada, and round one this spring will see Alberta’s self-styled white knight on charging steed, Jason Kenney, attempt to drive his Tory-blue lance into the soft orange underbelly of Notley’s NDP government. How successful this charge will be remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say Kenney will be looking to quickly unseat his opponent in this two-horse race. As Canadians prepare to let their pencils do the walking at the ballot-box in fall 2019, one suspects the SNC-Lavalin affair with have more lives than a cat for the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, and if it doesn’t, the Opposition will be taking great pains to see that it does.