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Posted: February 23, 2019

Oh what a tangled web politics can be

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

So next week we’re going to hear the “truth.” Truth from politicians no less. Having covered politicians for almost 40 years, I can hardly wait!

I’m referring of course to the Jody Wilson-Raybould scandal that has rocked Ottawa to its very core and resulted in some bizarre comments this week by Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, the highest bureaucrat in the land, who suggested “somebody’s going to be shot” in the next federal election!

Wernick’s highly partisan comments to the Commons Justice Committee Thursday left many shaking their heads. He acknowledged he spoke to the former justice minister before she was rudely demoted from cabinet for what many believe was her decision to continue a criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, a giant international Quebec construction and engineering firm that’s been mired in scandal for years.

The essence of the argument against prosecuting SNC is one we’ve often heard in the past when it comes to prosecuting banks and car companies – they’re too big to fail. Too much money would be lost; too many jobs would disappear; the government would lose too much tax revenue and so on.

In the case of SNC-Lavalin, close to 9,000 jobs could be lost if the company was convicted on bribery and corruption charges as it has been before both in Canada and abroad. A conviction would mean the company couldn’t bid on government contracts in Canada for 10 years, a situation that would likely break the company and it should be noted at this point that the company can no longer borrow abroad from the World Bank because of previous convictions internationally. In Canada, most of the job losses would be in Quebec and there’s a federal election this fall.

I think you can see what way the wind is blowing.

This is all a matter of record. Where things start to get murky – and they’re impenetrably murky now– is what is the role of politics in all this? As mentioned earlier, when the Clerk of the Privy Council (Wernick) testified this week he admitted he spoke to Wilson-Raybould about the SNC prosecution and its potential consequences. He told her “a lot of her colleagues” were worried that if the prosecution was successful and SNC convicted the economic consequences for Canada would be dire. And then Wernick made another extraordinary statement, telling the committee: “I am quite sure the minister felt pressured to get it right.”

The key word here is “pressured.” Isn’t that exactly what Wilson-Raybould is objecting to? She has maintained from the beginning of this opaque affair that she believed she was being pressured to do something (drop the SNC prosecution) even though she believed they may have broken the law (again) and the only way to find out was to let the prosecution go ahead in a court of law. Wernick’s use of the word ‘right’ is suspicious. Surely, it’s obvious that what he meant by right was to be a good girl Jody and do what’s politically “right.”

After all dear reader, isn’t that what politics is all about, getting it “right.” Do what the boss wants and forget about the law. In this case Justin Trudeau from Quebec, son of a former prime minister from Quebec and Gerald Butts, the boss’s right-hand man all wanted the same thing – make it go away!

It’s all kind of tawdry really.

However, this scandal is not without nuance. It’s quite possible if SNC were convicted yet again the company would collapse. Thousands of Canadians would lose their jobs. Thousands more would lose their jobs abroad. Maybe that’s sufficient reason to let such an ethically-challenged company off with a wrist-slapping fine, as legislation now allows, instead of throwing all those good people out of work and giving Canada an international black eye.

Think politics is easy? It’s not. Surely the SNC-Lavalin affair proves that.

So, what’s going to happen next week? Will what appears to be an ethically squishy prime minister be vindicated? Or will a principled, but possibly politically naïve ex attorney general, come out on top?

I can hardly wait.

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, who was once a minor politician himself and knows how slippery politics can be.

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