In the days following the release of the Ethics Commissioner’s report into the Double-Hyphen Affair, there has been much bemoaning about the fact that the prime minister refuses to apologize for the whole sordid mess, as he repeats that he firmly believes that he did nothing wrong because he was trying to protect Canadian jobs. Some voices in the pundit class are hoping for some kind of assurance that there is a recognition that the fundamentally broken aspects of the system that led to this system need to be addressed, but in a system where nobody wants to speak truth to power, is this something that is even possible?
What is probably the most cringe-inducing part of the report was the description of how players from SNC-Lavalin had so embedded themselves with officials from the Department of Finance that they were trying to stage-manage events, and it that it was SNC-Lavalin who suggested to those officials to put the Deferred Prosecution Agreement section into the federal budget rather than wait for standalone legislation as a means of speeding things along. (Reminder here that there is nothing untoward about DPAs as a whole, and that Canada has been a laggard in not putting such a system into place sooner, while comparable Western democracies have had them for a decade). After all, consultations had already been underway about how to design such a system, and feedback had been given, but no draft legislation had come forward as of yet.
Mind you, given the track record that Jody Wilson-Raybould had with justice reform legislation, that hope for a speedier solution may have been warranted, given that her tendency was to introduce bills, then let them languish on the Order Paper while a subsequent bill was tabled that included that one, and that too would languish until a third criminal justice bill was tabled that incorporated yet more material. It’s unlikely that any DPA legislation would have been stand-alone, and would likely have been bundled into these growing omnibus criminal justice bills. That third and final justice bill, incidentally, didn’t pass Parliament until almost the very end of the spring sitting – but this is context, not justification for SNC-Lavalin’s meddling.
There is clearly a problem with the level of access that SNC-Lavalin had – or perhaps continues to have – with this government, but I am struggling to think of how the rules could be changed in a meaningful way to prevent what happened. Oh sure, we could try the route of attempting to put governments on total lockdown when it comes to lobbying efforts, but that would likely do more harm than good. After all, lobbying is not simply restricted to corporations and their interests, but is also done by charities, non-profits, issues advocacy groups, and unions, all of whom have cause to engage the government. We already have robust reporting requirements around what lobbying and communication occurs, so I’m not sure that’s the problem that needs solving here.
At the same time, it’s not a problem that is endemic to SNC-Lavalin alone – though they have proven themselves to be particularly adept at this kind of political activity, and of being able to tailor their activities and agents to the Liberals’ cause. Remember too that their previous board chairman was a friend of Stephen Harper and the man that Harper had hand-picked to run his proposed political appointments committee before the opposition dug their heels in and refused to let it go ahead. But there are other interests who would be just as cozy with other governments. One only has to look at how the oil and gas industry had managed to put forward hundreds of amendments to Bill C-69 by way of the Conservatives in the Senate that went through uncritically – to the point where the version of the bill that emerged from committee was riddled with contradictory clauses – to show that it’s not just a problem with the Liberals.
And like Trudeau has repeatedly done, each party justifies this kind of coziness under their particular brand of standing up for jobs and ordinary people, couched in whatever particular branded slogan they’re employing. It merely becomes an exercise in rationalizing how this particular corporation or sector is in the public good, unlike the interests advanced by other parties. It’s the lifeblood of politics. Changing that is like asking a fish to start breathing air.
So, what can be done to prevent another incident like this from happening again? Thus far, putting up a sign on a lectern that says “honest leadership” is a pretty hollow gesture from certain party leaders, whose campaigns have thus far been a house of lies. And promises of “doing politics differently” are so vague that they have become a mere exercise in creating expectations that can never be fulfilled.
We need a culture change in our politics, in order to restore the accountability mechanisms that allowed more people in the chain to speak truth to power, but that leads us back to a familiar refrain that nobody wants to entertain – it starts with restoring the way in which we choose party leaders so that they are once again chosen and fired by the caucus. You can’t speak truth to power when your leader knows that they are not beholden to you, and when they can claim a false “democratic legitimacy” that allowed them to centralize their power. You can’t hold leaders to account until they have the fear that they can be easily ousted. And when they have that fear, and the rest of the party has dismantled the means by which they have centralized their authority, then maybe the leaders will start taking better care to listen to the voices that tell them that maybe, just maybe, letting a corporation facing criminal charges stage-manage legislation that would protect their interests, is a bad thing. But nobody is going to run on this kind of culture change – they’ll promise to tinker around the edges and to totally follow all the rules – really!– and the underlying problems will still be there, festering.
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