Editorial: SNC-Lavalin scandal: The anatomy of a speech

The Canadian Politician (Toronto) – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cancelled his scheduled engagement in Regina on Tuesday to rush to Ottawa in what was described as urgent and important private meetings. It has now been revealed that the meetings the prime minister attended were designed to diffuse the SNC-Lavalin scandal that has shaken the Liberal government to its core, and capable of sinking it if urgent damage-control measures are not put in place.

Since Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister, testified before the House of Commons Justice Committee about the “Consistent and sustained pressured” mounted on her by the prime minister’s office to soft pedal in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, the prime minister has maintained that nothing inappropriate occurred in his office’s interaction with the then justice minister. He has been unapologetic, insisting that it was a matter of semantics or difference in perception/characterization of events regarding the the prosecution of the engineering giant. He had hoped that it will fizzle away, consigned to the dustbin of fictitious stories, and his political life back to normal.

The prime minister further stated that the minor cabinet reshuffle that saw Wilson-Raybould sent to the veteran affairs ministry, admittedly, a demotion by all accounts, was unrelated to the SNC-Lavalin prosecution; that it was indeed given to her to continue the “momentum” and reconciliation efforts put in place by the previous minister. Ironically, that the previous minister resigned hardly with any advance notice in protest of the government’s handling of the scandal. While many saw it as a demotion, Trudeau was adamant that it was a routine function of government.

Since the Globe and Mail reported that the PMO exerted pressure on the former justice minister, Canadians have been waiting for some sort of explanation from their leader as to what happened. They wanted to hear from the prime minister his version of events that would put the scandal in perspective for them. Thus far, four weeks into the scandal, Canadians have heard nothing of substance from Trudeau whose integrity and political viability is at stake, made worse by the fact that it is an election year. The prime minister has not been at the question period in parliament to provide his perspective of events.

On Thursday, when he addressed Canadians, he did not admit guilt, neither was he apologetic, but instead chalked it up to what he termed as the “erosion of trust” between his principal secretary, Gerald Butts and Wilson-Raybould. His only admission in this matter was that, as a leader, he should have known about this mistrust between Butts and Wilson-Raybould. This points to an acute failure of leadership for the prime minister not to be aware of such significant breakdown of trust that in his mind led to this fiasco.

Admittedly, Trudeau has shifted his approach from one of “we did nothing wrong” to a reconciliatory tune, sort of a “no contest” plea. His speech at the climate incentive really in Toronto on Monday, suggested a new and almost contrite approach. But what Canadians actually need from their prime minister is not ambivalence, willy-nilly nor a manipulation of the nuances of the scandal, but a bold admission of wrongdoing by his administration in seeking to assist an embattled Quebec company, a firm supporter of the Liberal Party, to soft land in a corruption case, to save jobs and his political future. He needs to boldly admit the role of his office, apologize to Canadians and Wilson-Raybould whose integrity has been compromised as result of the “Consistent and sustained” pressure mounted on her for towing the path of probity and constitutionalism. Perhaps, then, Canadians can forgive.

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