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Cloudy Ways

Allegations of political interference in the prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin cast a shadow over the Trudeau cabinet’s ability to function in solidarity and confidence, argues Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland.

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Topics: Journalism, Trust
Cloudy Ways February 11, 2019  |  By Peter Stockland
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Well, I guess one thing Canadians can all agree on is that it’s not 2015 anymore.

Certainly, a certain Canadian prime minister knows it as a matter of fact. He doesn’t need to look at the calendar. He can just lick the serious wounds he suffered in one of the nastier bouts of public political infighting Canadians have seen in a long while. It’s internal strife that could irreparably shred his cabinet’s solidarity. It has already breached the principle of cabinet confidentiality that is foundational to our parliamentary system. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A mere 40 months ago, fresh from winning a massive majority government, at the swearing in of his first cabinet, Prime Minister Trudeau declared that the very structure of his government mirrored the progress of the earth around the sun.

Specifically, asked in a media scrum why he’d made sure the cabinet was 50 per cent women, he answered: “Because it’s 2015.”

Mockers and scoffers at the surface flippancy of the answer missed its underlying message of historic inevitability. When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, as the ancient song about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius puts it, the inevitability of human progress and the indefatigable durability of the Liberal party become as one. 

Or did until it came to a screeching halt last week. Revelations, or unproven accusations if you prefer, that the Prime Minister’s Office tried to pressure the former federal justice minister into cutting a deal to help Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin avoid punishment on corruption charges will do that. 

Much of the concern voiced after the news hit the Globe and Mail’s front page was about potential undermining of the rule of law. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has made that a key theme in his push for a House of Commons inquiry into the imbroglio. 

What have been overlooked are the implications for the functioning of the Canadian federal cabinet, which is the rock on which the rule of law rests in our system. Erosion of the cornerstone principles of cabinet solidarity and cabinet confidentiality threatens not just the ministers in the current government, but the long-term trust that’s essential to our form of democratic governance. If that were to happen, it would be the fullest and most damaging form of corruption. 

To paraphrase one of my highly perspicacious Cardus colleagues, when true corruption takes hold, the compact between the people and the government is broken, usually irreparably. The key thing to keep in mind about corruption is that it's at least as much about expectations as it is about specific actions. A people that seriously, genuinely and reflexively believes its political leaders can be bought will behave as though they have been. 

So, no, there is no proof yet of wrong doing, much less active corruption, in the political response to SNC-Lavalin’s bid to be let off the hook. The dilemma for the prime minister is that there doesn’t have to be. Why? Because what’s indisputable is that someone went to the Globe with the story that lit up the country last week. 

Someone with knowledge of the cabinet’s discussions around SNC-Lavalin, and of former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s response, was so unsettled by what went on as to go public with a devastating breach of confidential information. Whoever did so was close enough to the events, and in a responsible enough position, to have weighed fully the democratic risks. And they did it anyway.

That doesn’t prove the information is true, of course. In any political city such as Ottawa, there are legions of people routinely trotting to the media with metaphoric brown-envelopes that they want to use to “expose” their foes. In an era when the toxic combination of woefully understaffed newsrooms and click-bait journalism prevails, a lot of dung-and-feathers that would have once been tossed in the nearest dumpster instead becomes part of the ephemera and effluvia of the hourly news feed. The one bit of good news is that there is no conceivable way that happened with this story.

I know that because I have known for decades two of the three Globe reporters involved, Bob Fife and Steve Chase, and know the third, Sean Fine, from a distance as an admirer of his work. 

Fife, having worked the Parliament Hill beat for 40 years, is not just the top journalist in Ottawa at the moment. Few have his tenacity, fewer still his insatiable fairness, almost none his longevity. 

Chase, likewise, has spent years in the parliamentary precinct fulfilling his reputation for honest, reliable, meticulous journalism that breaks stories without breaking the rules of the game.

Sean Fine simply is Supreme Court media coverage in Canada. You do not cover the highest court in the land for as long and a skillfully as he has without being a reporter of the highest order. 

The chance that one of them could be hoodwinked by some paper peddler with a story to tell pushes beyond the bounds of the probable. The idea that all three of them could be fooled simultaneously is, to use the technical journalistic term, nutso. Again, that doesn’t mean the information is proof to a legal standard. It does mean it is credible enough to satisfy three ultra-experienced, deeply politically seasoned, utterly reliable journalists it was worth reporting. 

That, in itself, is one of the deepest wounds a certain prime minister now bears. He knows that someone in the know, therefore someone proximate to him, broke the seal on cabinet solidarity and cabinet confidentiality.  He knows whoever that person was channeled the information through a medium of immediate, and justifiable, credibility. He knows, in other words, that he is in the fight of his life with a very skilled, very determined, and clearly deeply concerned opponent. 

Clearly, it’s not 2015 for the prime minister or Canadians anymore. The question on the floor is whether Election 2019 can come fast enough for whoever wins to limit the potential damage to our political institutions and our democratic life. 


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