We are now in week two of testimonies about the only event in Canadian politics in recent memory to divert our attention from American politics. Last week, embattled ex-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould gave her account of “conversations” regarding a potential deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for the comprehensively corrupt engineering giant SNC-Lavalin. On Wednesday, former PMO Principal Secretary Gerald Butts and current Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick gave theirs. In between, while most of the commentariat lined up squarely behind JWR, a few select pundits opined that her departure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet – and, consequently, that of ex-Treasury Board President Jane Philpott – was selfish, whiny, “sanctimonious,” and in general a sign of her inexperience and discomfort with what partisan politics requires.
At the heart of the difference between Butts and JWR’s accounts is how much pressure on a cabinet minister is too much. JWR had a total of 21 conversations with hands from the PMO, the PCO, and the Office of the Minister of Finance that she believed to be attempts to sway her to approve a DPA for SNC-Lavalin. According to Butts’ opening statement:
You now know that the subject of those interactions was whether she would take independent, external advice on the matter. It did not seem to me then, and does not now, that what we did was anything other than what those 9000 people [employed by SNC-Lavalin] would have every right to expect of their Prime Minister. . . . I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government. . . . I believe her office carries with it a duty for its occupant to inform the Prime Minister of improper behaviour, in writing, at or near the time the behaviour is observed.
After Butts left Trudeau’s office, many people in Ottawa spoke of his intelligence, dedication, and integrity in rapturous terms. Let’s assume that rapture is justified, and he believes with all his heart that the following is within “the normal operations of government”:
- belabouring an argument against a minister’s decision after she has made it firm;
- attempting to spare a private entity from prosecution for criminal activity for the sake of jobs and votes;
- not attempting to determine if that fear over job losses is justified, as Wernick admitted in his own hearing that he did not do; and,
- dismissing a minister’s objections to any of the above because she did not make that objection a) soon enough and b) in writing.
Perhaps JWR’s critics are on to something. Perhaps she is too independent and too principled for a world in which any of this is “normal.” Perhaps, instead of accepting a cabinet post from Trudeau in the first place, she should have entered a line of work where independence and principle actually is welcome. Has she considered becoming a reality show judge?
Without really trying, Butts has laid bare some essential truths of Canadian politics. The coziness of Ottawa’s relationships to favoured corporations must be left untouched, as must the centralization of prime ministerial power. A cabinet minister’s experiences and values will never count for as much as the prime minister’s whims. When we talk about the importance of being a “team player,” we’re not talking about the kind of team in which every player contributes a unique talent. We’re talking about the kind of team in which you do whatever the captain makes you do, or ride the bench.
From now on, I expect to hear no more from the Liberal Party about the importance of encouraging anyone, especially women, to aim for the highest echelons of power in Parliament. They have spent the entirety of this news cycle admitting that the only way to stay there is to sell one’s soul, lest they be met with condescending, often misogynistic, and occasionally borderline racist barbs about being too “self-righteous.” And, still, the best argument the Grits’ defenders can mount is that the Opposition Conservatives would be no better, perhaps worse. What do they accomplish by saying this, except to poison the mind against politics at large even more?
Team Trudeau ran on hope and hard work. In a few short weeks, they have generated widespread cynicism, even among people who were too politically disengaged to be cynical. And that does take hard work.
Photo Credit: CTV News
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