The issues involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair are too important to be treated flippantly. This isn’t some question of policy on which people of goodwill can differ
Another campaign begun in the shadow of scandal. The first weeks of the 2015 election campaign were dominated by the trial of Sen. Mike Duffy, at much subsequent cost to Stephen Harper’s re-election chances. Whether or not the latest revelations in the SNC-Lavalin affair prove to be as consequential to the current campaign, the implications are deeply troubling.
Not only is the RCMP reported to have been inquiring into the affair, in which the prime minister and other government officials attempted to interfere in a criminal prosecution, as a possible case of obstruction of justice, but investigators have apparently been prevented from gathering evidence from key witnesses — obstructed, if you will — by the government’s continuing refusal to release them from the bonds of cabinet confidentiality.
No, it’s not yet a formal criminal investigation, and yes, whatever else you want to call it has been “paused” until after the election — a protocol installed after the 2006 campaign, which was knocked sideways by the revelation that the RCMP was investigating the then minister of finance. No doubt that will be of some relief to the Liberal campaign, but it does leave the public in a bind: it would be a hell of a thing to re-elect the government only to have its top officials charged afterward with serious crimes.
And the questions — the first from a reporter, immediately after Justin Trudeau’s opening statement: “what is your government trying to hide?” — are not going to go away. Seven months after the scandal first came to light, they boil down to one: why not lift the obligation to keep cabinet conversations secret if it will help police get to the bottom of the matter?
This is not, after all, the first time the subject has come up. While the prime minister made a great show of waiving cabinet confidentiality earlier this year with regard to his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the waiver applied only to discussions that took place while she was still in the job, and only to those in which she took part. The ethics commissioner reported last month that nine witnesses with evidence relevant to his inquiry had been kept silent by the same restriction.
Cabinet confidentiality is an important principle — ministers could not otherwise speak frankly on sensitive matters — that ought not to be taken lightly. But it is not as important as the rule of law. It might be invoked for reasons of state — or, more often, to spare governments political embarrassment — but it cannot be extended to cover discussions of potential crimes.
Or at any rate it should not. Maybe Trudeau, as he insists, did nothing wrong, legally or ethically. If so, the witnesses will presumably exonerate him. But if not, all the more reason why they should be allowed to tell police what they know.
Certainly it is within his power to do so. The explanation, offered both to the ethics commissioner and the RCMP, that it was a decision of the clerk of the privy council, even if true, will not wash. The clerk works for the prime minister, not the other way around. Whatever power the prime minister chooses to delegate he can also choose to take back.
The prime minister, in any event, long ago undermined any principled defence of his position by his readiness to go public with his side of the same conversations. It is no part of the doctrine of cabinet confidentiality that it should be strictly applied to material that might incriminate government officials, but may be relaxed where it shows them in a better light.
I say all this in the vain hope that the question will be considered on its merits, and not merely as a matter of optics, or polling, or tactics. We have an unfortunate tendency in our trade to cover the campaign, rather than the election — who’s up, who’s down, how the parties are or should be positioning themselves on a given issue, as opposed to what’s right, what’s wrong, and which party’s position is closest to the truth.
Cabinet confidentiality is an important principle. But it is not as important as the rule of law
But the issues involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair are too important to be treated so flippantly. This isn’t about whether to raise or lower taxes or some other question of policy on which people of goodwill can differ, but whether we are to have an impartial system of justice, or one in which powerful corporations can wriggle out of prosecution by lobbying the right politicians. MORE