When I left journalism there was a question that followed me: How could I have left the excitement and bright lights of the news business without missing it?
Saying I didn’t miss it didn’t work – but one day I woke up with an answer. I didn’t miss day-to-day journalism but I did miss the romantic part. The part when a big story happens. Looking back a couple of weeks, there was no bigger story than having a prime minister on the ropes without a Muhammad Ali-like “rope-a-dope” to see daylight.
The SNC-Lavalin debacle is a multi-layered mess with an election seven months away. When the SNC-Lavalin story first broke, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put his credibility on the line as his first line of defence – and when a political leader does that, he or she risks losing everything.
Early on it was mind boggling to see a government, with the stakes so high, be so inept at defending itself. So many of the government’s early moves backfired leaving a bigger mess, with more and more important questions left unanswered.
There was also a basic problem. The director of public prosecutions was pressing for the criminal case to move forward – there was just no way for this to ever smell good. For their part, Trudeau and Gerald Butts, his former principal secretary, both insisted on many occasions that they never pressured the former attorney general to change direction.
But it was never easy to defend their position and it was interesting to see two powerful people, Trudeau and Butts, reduced to a state of powerlessness when it came to their own defence, especially at the beginning.
They were rendered powerless because in the first early weeks, by remaining silent, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general left Trudeau wondering what she might say. That, for a time, made her the most powerful person in Ottawa.
In theory, the fundamental issue at stake was and remains supreme. If a government tries to pervert the justice system to engineer conclusions that suit political needs then democracy itself is threatened. Trudeau couldn’t have seen it that way blinded by his own political reality. A Quebec-based leader had to defend the interests of SNC-Lavalin.
There were thousands of highly skilled jobs at risk in Quebec. SNC-Lavalin is a huge global engineering company and if convicted of bribing corrupt officials in Libya, as other global companies routinely did, it would be banned from doing business with the federal government for 10 years.
SNC-Lavalin embodies today’s Quebec. It is owned and operated by Quebecers. The Quebec pension plan has a major financial stake in it. The company is an important cog in Quebec’s economy. You really have to wonder if a Conservative prime minister not from Quebec would have also done his or her best to save the company from losing federal government contracts for a decade.
The business argument stood on one side of the ledger and politics on the other. Trudeau needs every seat he can get in Quebec if he is going to win the 2019 election. That unflinching reality rang loud and clear.
Politics is about winning by doing what you have to do to win. When principles, for whatever reason, obstruct the path to victory, political leaders routinely look for what they consider a compromise. Passing a law making it possible for SNC-Lavalin to be reprimanded without criminal prosecution was a compromise that failed.
From the get-go, it was obvious that Wilson-Raybould was deeply troubled by the compromise. If she wasn’t troubled, she would still be justice minister and attorney general and, approaching the election, Trudeau would still be taking credit for appointing the first indigenous justice minister in history.
No one can take issue with Wilson-Raybould’s principled stand and there will be many – notably fellow former minister and friend Jane Philpott – who will admire and praise her for it. Trudeau must wonder whether, had he appointed someone else to be justice minister and attorney general, would he have been left swinging in the wind for this long, pondering if he is finished.
Prominent and respected in indigenous circles, Wilson-Raybould set the bar of principle higher for herself – possibly because it was important for her, for indigenous people, and for their sad history with politics-as-usual.