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A key thing that makes the SNC-Lavalin contretemps such a showcase for corruption is its utter confusion about who did what to whom.
Since the uproar erupted two weeks ago as a major scoop on the front page of the Globe and Mail, it has become a comedy of compounding curiosities.
On Monday, it cost the prime minister’s principal secretary his job. Gerald Butts announced his departure by insisting he’d done nothing wrong yet had to leave to prevent the people who are saying he’s done something wrong from continuing to say he’s done something wrong. Sure. That’ll work.
Earlier, it cost Jody Wilson-Raybould the cabinet position to which she was demoted, and from which she resigned after the prime minister said her continued presence as veterans’ affairs minister “spoke for itself” that no improper pressure had been placed upon her as justice minister in the SNC-Lavalin matter, which she is forbidden by solicitor-client privilege from speaking about. Got that? All clear?
So, nothing happened but two of the most senior people in the federal government are out of the jobs they had before nothing happened. Makes sense. In a kinda-sorta Ottawa way.
The default temptation is to skip trying to seriously make sense of the events, and go straight to the electoral implications of the political chaos. We’re seeing that arising already in media commentary. Explaining the apparently inexplicable is being replaced by reporting on the prime minister’s popularity in polling numbers. If we don’t understand what it means now, we had best speculate what it will mean for October’s federal election, yes? No. We’re best off digging down as close as we can to full meaning.
More worrisome is dismissing the story entirely as something no one outside Ottawa cares about. Folks in Tim Hortons aren’t talking about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the meme-think goes, so what’s the big deal? Actually, the correct question is whether alleged misuse of power in the PMO is best assessed by someone preoccupied with ordering a double-double.
Inability to see the error in reducing governance to ballot box prospects, or the mistake in weighing everything by how much it sparks popular talk, underscores the pernicious way corruption works. Indeed, it shows us what corruption actually is. Corruption is not action. Fingers+Cookie Jar+Surveillance Tape does not equal corruption. It equals theft. Corruption isn’t doing. It’s thinking.
It’s thinking there’s legitimacy in believing that because of what you can conceal, command, or extort, you are free to live in ways denied to other law-abiding human beings. As one of the wisest people I know told me, it’s the ingrained mental certainty that even if you get caught, you’ll always be covered because of who you are and because you always have been. If we think about the SNC-Lavalin “corruption” scandal using that definition, it becomes almost a textbook illustration of the way corruption – real corruption – can seep into the deep spaces of our institutions unless it’s called out and stopped.
To be absolutely clear, I am not saying that has happened here. I am saying it’s why it deserves our serious attention. Such attention should never be predicated on political horse race possibilities, or what’s easily understood by someone with a mouth full of chocolate cruller.
Here’s why. What we do know about the SNC-Lavalin scandal tells us the federal cabinet, abetted by the prime minister’s office, actively debated whether the State and a law-breaking corporation should collude to supersede the rule of law because together the State and the corporation judged it in the nation’s interest.
The argument, after all, has been that thousands of SNC-Lavalin workers could lose high-paying jobs unless the company is given favourable legal treatment. The federal director of prosecutions, an officer of the court, rejected that. Yet it continued to be a matter of closed-door political debate. There is a name for such political, and by extension economic, thinking. Canadians fought and died in Italy during the Second World War to combat it.
Again, I’m not suggesting anyone even tangentially connected to the scandal noticed that ideological similarity, much less tried to smuggle it in to our halls of power. But it’s precisely their clouded vision that makes the affair a perfect showcase for what corruption is, and how it besets us institutionally, i.e. the thinking that it can’t happen here because of who we are and always have been. But it can happen here if we are distracted by who’s doing what to whom, and not ever vigilant about what lies beneath.
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