Former federal Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, testified for nearly four hours before the Parliamentary Justice Committee yesterday. Her testimony was riveting, thoughtful, precise, backed up by notes, her credibility impeccable, and her presence a paragon of integrity. Dramatic, yes? But “devastating to the Liberals,” no.
She related several instances over the five-month period between September 2018 and January 2019 when Prime Minister Trudeau, senior members of the PMO, and the civil service put what she described as “inappropriate pressure” on her and her staff, apparently in an effort to have her “change her mind” about supporting the Director of Public Prosecutions in her criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin for bribery in Libya, and her refusal to offer them a DPA (“deferrred prosecution agreement”) to settle the matter. In her view, their actions amounted to “a consistent and sustained effort to politically interfere” with JWR’s role as an independent Attorney-General.
JWR admitted that what happened did not rise to the level of criminal activity but, in her view, “it was inappropriate” and, but for her refusal to change her mind, could have amounted to a derogation from “the rule of law” in Canada. She went on to testify that she thought her removal from her Cabinet position as Minister of Justice and her role as Attorney-General was due directly to the stand she had taken on SNC-Lavalin.
If you have not seen her testimony, do not rely on press reports. Watch it yourself on the internet.
The opposition is having a field day. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer, called for the PM to resign and for the RCMP to start a criminal investigation. NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, insisted on a full-fledged Judicial Commission of Inquiry. The Justice Committee wants the PM to extend the government’s waiver of cabinet confidence and solicitor-client privilege so that JWR can return and testify about what happened between her and the PM after she was demoted to Minister of Veteran Affairs. The Committee and the media agree that everyone who had contact with JWR and her staff must testify before the Committee and the Ethics Commissioner so that “Canadians can know the facts.”
In his press conference after JWR’s testimony, Prime Minister Trudeau forcefully denied that he and his staff did anything wrong. He totally rejected JWR’s characterization of what occurred. He agreed that his government was concerned about the consequences of the ongoing SNC-Lavalin prosecution on “jobs,” and on innocent employees, creditors and investors of the company. But he insisted that the decision about the criminal prosecution was for the Attorney General to make, and that, at no time, did anyone ever direct her otherwise. While respecting the role of the Attorney General and the primacy of “the rule of law,” he acknowledged, as JWR said, that his government wanted “a solution” to the SNC-Lavalin problem.
We’ve had three weeks of political turmoil in Ottawa and unprecedented testimony about how government works from the inside. Despite the drama, no one in the Justice Committee, nor in the national media commenting on the event later, picked up on the primary lesson evident from all that has occurred.
At the end of her testimony, former Attorney General Jody Wilson Raybould suggested that the dual role of Minister of Justice and Attorney General which exists in Canada should be divided, as it is in Britain. There, the Minister of Justice sits as a member of Cabinet, concerned with policy development and political considerations. The Attorney General is an independent office, does not sit in Cabinet, and is shielded from political influence by the separate structure created by the express division of responsibilities for policy development and for prosecutions. She suggested that such a structure would be useful for the Canadian government to consider. I totally agree.
In my view, this entire episode boils down to different views on the role of Canada’s two-hatted Minister of Justice/Attorney General. The dual role requires different approaches and different actions. Inherent in the dual role is the potential for conflict. Positing both positions in the person of a single individual may well place her into an impossible conflict, as it apparently did with Judy Wilson-Raybould.
Everyone knew that the AG supported her DPP, and there is no evidence that anyone asked her to countermand her DPP and/or take over the prosecution (although in law she had the power to do that). When, in October, SNC-Lavalin received formal notice of the DPP’s decision not to offer them a DPA, the company immediately started a legal action challenging that decision. That legal action was the first such action on the new law and was pending at all relevant times. The focus of this litigation was on three key questions: could the courts review the exercise of her discretion? if so, what criteria did she use? And did she apply the criteria correctly? All are important questions on how the legislation is to work in the future.
That the matter was before the courts was useful for the government. As I have argued previously, this Liberal government doesn’t like to be labelled “soft on crime” and prefers to have the courts do their dirty work for them.
But while the matter proceeded before the courts, the Liberal government wanted its constituents to know that they had not forgotten the matter; hence the search “for a solution.” JWR admits that all the officials and staffers who pressured her were looking “for a solution.” What kind of “solution”? Since she said her refusal to interfere with the ongoing litigation was clear as early as mid-September, what kind of “solution” were the PM’s politicos after? I interpret this to mean alternative legislative or regulatory means which could mitigate the damage on SNC-Lavalin in the event of a conviction. An amendment to the mandatory ten-year ban on no-government contracts in the event of a conviction is one possible option; another may be providing a discretion as to what length of ban would apply.
As Minister of Justice, JWR was responsible for policy development related to the Criminal Code. In that role, “jobs” and the interests of “employees, investors, and creditors” would be legitimate and major concerns, and the PM, other officials, and staffers could well want JWR to use the resources available in the Department of Justice to formulate a proposed alternative solution. These were matters that could have been dealt with in the original legislation. For some reason unknown to us, that did not occur and now the government was faced with correcting the lacuna.
Apparently, JWR, wearing her Attorney-General hat, felt uncomfortable with discussion and actions that properly fell to her in her role as Minister of Justice. That she raised the need to separate the two roles before the Justice Committee indicates the dilemma and helps explain the context of what has occurred. For all the shouting from the opposition and the black ink in the media, the Liberals have learned a valuable lesson. I am confident that they have the wisdom and the experience to go forward with the structural solution that stares them in the face and could well resolve the problem.