Another minister leaves the Cabinet, how long can this go on?

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For a while, I was thinking that I was the naive one, the one who should have known better.  The one who should have figured out politics is a dirty business, a game played not for the public, but for the interests of a powerful few.

But now I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t the case.  Maybe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the naive one.

You see, Trudeau made a big show of talking about values and all this, making it — or at least talking about it as — the centre of what his government was about.  And it wasn’t just the voting public buying into this fresher idea of government.  With the exit of Jane Philpott from cabinet Monday, it’s becoming clear people Trudeau chose to be a part of his government bought it too.

Ministers like Philpott saw what the Liberal party and its leader had promised and decided to live by that idea.  To work and serve something higher and more noble than crass political calculations.

Maybe it’s the prime minister that was naive to think he could say one thing, and do another without much consequence.  Maybe he really has changed politics.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called once again on Monday for Trudeau’s resignation.  That’s probably still premature.  But Scheer also called for the prime minister to be honest with Canadians, and to bring back Parliament to face the opposition.

Most cuttingly, Scheer said this: “It’s time for every Liberal cabinet minister to ask themselves the same question Jane Philpott did: Is this what you got into politics for, to prop up a prime minister who will subvert the law to win elections and benefit his friends?  If not, it’s time for them to stand up and be heard like Jane Philpott did today.”

It’s a brutal question, that seems rather trenchant.  Is this what these people got into politics for?

But anyway, this part of his requests aren’t unreasonable, particularly the part about having a frank conversation with the country.  Whether this scandal calls for his resignation, I’m not sure of yet.  There are still many unknowns, and a number of people have still to testify.  Gerald Butts, his now-former principal secretary will make an appearance before the justice committee Wednesday morning, and Michael Wernick will make a second appearance that afternoon.

Anyhow, what we know now is not by any stretch good, but we don’t know everything.  We will know more soon, and it is reasonable to wait and see whether a resignation is necessary, or whether others should be sacked first.

Trudeau should recall Parliament to answer questions, rather than waiting for its scheduled return on March 18.  And the prime minister should be honest with the country about what his intentions were and to give a full accounting of what he and his office did, and why.

This has been the case from the start.

Philpott’s resignation letter makes a stunning rebuke of the way the government has handled the SNC-Lavalin mess from the very start.  Not just as a communications strategy, but as an ethical one.  I’ll quote here at some length:

“Unfortunately, the evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me.  Those concerns have been augmented by the views expressed by my constituents and other Canadians.  The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system.  It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases.  Sadly, I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”

Monday night at a rally, Trudeau thanked Philpott for her service and good works.  He mentioned he was watching the justice committee and its important work.  He never really addressed her criticisms directly, saying only he’d known about them for some time, he understood them, and he was disappointed.

Then he got down to what was important.  He talked about the bigger picture, about what was really important.  About building the movement (which is to say the party), how there were bigger issues that needed tackling.  Essentially, while he was sorry to see Philpott go, this was just a bump in the road.  Nothing to be learned here, folks.

This all comes just as the Liberals are out making the case they should have been doing in the first place, if they had any notion of being honest with us about what has happened with SNC-Lavalin.

Parliamentary secretary for Shared Services Canada Steven MacKinnon hit up the evening TV circuit to tell CBC’s Power and Politics flat out that SNC-Lavalin were “entitled” to receive a deferred prosecution agreement.  And if they’d made that argument from the start, if they’d come out in the open and just said what they wanted all along, we would not be here.

The prime minister himself wasn’t exactly beating back the idea SNC-Lavalin deserved special treatment, despite the decision of the prosecutor.  “We are always going to stand up for good jobs, create good jobs and defend Canadians’ interests,” Trudeau said, according to a Chronicle Herald report.  “This matter is to be determined by the attorney general.  That is what I said to the former attorney general, and that’s something the current attorney general knows full well.”

It seems insane to have to keep repeating this, to keep coming back to the same thought.  But all of this could have been avoided with a bit of honesty.  When the government decided this was a priority, it slipped in the change to the criminal code in the budget.  Or even when things started to go south, when The Globe and Mail first reported Wilson-Raybould had faced internal pressure to override the prosecutor and make a DPA happen for SNC-Lavalin, there could have been an honest conversation about what was up.  Instead, Trudeau made sure to keep up the cloak and dagger stuff.

Instead of saying from that point, when it was clear the jig was very soon to be up, what the reasoning for his office’s actions was, Trudeau gave us a careful bit of legalese about not “directing” then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule the public prosecutor.

From there the die was cast.  This would not be a case of being ethical, or truthful.  It would be about hiding from the facts.  And now, despite the evidence in front of him that this sort of politics doesn’t work, that it actively chases away good and decent members of his government, Trudeau continues down the same old path.

Change may really have come to Canadian politics, but it seems to have left its agent behind.

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

More from Robert Hiltz.     @robert_hiltz

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