How ethical a government do I want?

February 24, 2019

The last three weeks in Ottawa has been a turmoil of confused and conflicting opinions based upon little evidence.  The chronology dates from a Globe and Mail story by veteran reporter Robert Fife that Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould was demoted to Veteran’s Affairs following unsuccessful attempts by the Prime Minister’s Office to persuade her to agree to a plea bargaining agreement with SNC-Lavalin to avoid a trial on long-standing charges of corruption in its business dealings in Libya during the regime of Muammar Al Gathafi.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has seemed bewildered by Ms Wilson-Raybould’s stances at each stage of the slowly unfolding crisis. Raybould’s not helping much, as she remains largely silent, though shielding behind attorney-client privilege and lawyering up with a retired Supreme Court judge in her corner. For reasons best known to himself, PMO secretary and Trudeau confidant Jerry Butts has resigned his position, astonishing Ottawa.

Michael Wernick has been Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of Cabinet for a long time, his career spanning 37 years of service and several governments. The Commons Justice Committee called him to testify about his knowledge of the Wilson-Raybould situation. After 2 1/2 weeks of everyone twisting sideways to avoid saying anything, this career civil servant with nothing to lose decided to respond candidly to questions. Google the testimony. It’s highly entertaining television. His thesis was that there’s nothing wrong with the administration of justice in Canada. SNC-Lavalin lobbied to get the law changed so that they could avoid a trial. The government obliged with a piece of legislation deeply buried in a 580 page budget document. But the law came back from the Senate with a condition that the Attorney General may not take the economic significance of a corporation’s plight into the assessment of its eligibility for the plea deal. He further criticized Fife’s Globe and Mail article, calling it inaccurate and at times defamatory.

He explained that Jody Wilson-Raybould was made fully aware of the potential economic and political impact of a trial on the employer of 9000 Canadians, primarily in Quebec, not to mention the declining stock value’s effect upon the health of the Quebec Public Service Pension Plan, the major stockholder in the corporation. Wernick was utterly unapologetic in claiming that he did have conversations with Wilson-Raybould on the subject because his mandate as cabinet secretary is to make sure that the ministers are aware of all of the points of view so that when they make their decision, they can get it right.

The chief prosecutor decided that SNC-Lavalin did not qualify for the plea bargain, and that the corporation must go to trial on corruption charges. Ms. Wilson-Raybould stood by her underling’s decision, though as Attorney General she technically had the power to direct the Justice Department in the case of significant economic peril to the nation, though not when it is a bribery case. All hell broke loose in Quebec when SNC-Lavalin lawyers discovered that their expensive lobbying efforts of the last two years had failed.

The casualties are piling up from this train wreck. Trudeau’s personal credibility is down sharply because of the uncertainty. Half of Canadians don’t believe that he isn’t hiding something. Members of The Opposition, understanding nothing more than what they read in newspaper columns, appear to be running in circles, barking. Jerry Butts, the lynch-pin of Trudeau’s government, has resigned. Trudeau assured Canadians that if anything inappropriate had happened in Cabinet, Wilson-Raybould would not have accepted another cabinet appointment. The next day she resigned from Veteran’s Affairs. But she still won’t talk, claiming attorney-client privilege. Some have mentioned that she is no longer a licensed attorney, and when she was Minister of Justice her client would have been the Prime Minister. But still she holds her silence.

So it seems to come down to a battle between the ethical heroine (or intransigent narcissist, choose one) and the massive, corporation with its strong ties to Quebecers, the economy, and the army of lobbyists and lawyers who attempt to move governments for their benefit. On another level it pits a single disappointed Aboriginal woman against the massive white male plutocracy.

What is at stake? The crime seems to boil down to a series of bribes to assist the escape of one of Gathafi’s sons from a lynch mob in Syria in order to land a construction contract worth about three times that amount. SNC-Lavalin insists that this all took place a long time ago during a revolution, and the accused have all long-since left the company. The CEO claims his 9000 Canadian employees are being bashed helplessly about like a hockey puck, and he is getting sick of it. The United States and Britain have laws which allow for relatively easy plea bargains to rectify the corporation’s wrongs, but the way things sit a conviction would leave SNC-Lavalin banned from Canadian Government contract bids for a decade. MegaProjects are their stock in trade. They are deeply involved with the Quebec Public Service Pension Plan in the light rail line between Quebec City and Montreal, the only project so far approved by the Trudeau Government’s new investment fund. Trouble is, the stench of corruption from a recent Montreal bridge project still turns up on the opinion pages of the nation.

Wernick says that Wilson-Raybould made the right decision according to the way the law is written. There’s nothing wrong with the administration of justice in Canada, though there is plenty wrong with how politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and members of the public talk about it.

And so it sits. Tomorrow will be another day, with, of course, a new Minister of Justice who comes from Quebec, not British Columbia. I realize I haven’t answered the question in this missive’s title. As a pensioner I guess I lean toward whatever keeps the stock market valuations highest. But who in his right mind would have been buying SNC-Lavalin stock with the corruption rumours circulating? I guess I just don’t know.




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