The SNC-Lavalin Affair as a Political Management Crisis

Two events took place the past few days related to the SNC-Lavalin affair. Yesterday, Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes resigned from the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent for the rest of this session following her criticism of Justin Trudeau. In an interview the week before with The Globe and Mail, she accused Justin of raising his voice to her, a charge which the PMO denied. She had tweeted that Justin had failed to live up to the principles of teamwork and transparency that he espoused. “Real leadership is about listening, learning and compassion.” She did not respond yesterday when asked if her decision had anything to do with the alleged pressure on ex-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybauld (JWR) and her, along with ex-Treasury Board president, Jane Philpott’s, resignations from cabinet after the effort to get SNC-Lavalin a DPA, that is, a deferred prosecution agreement.

A second event: The day before yesterday, SNC-Lavalin was awarded the Compliance Leader Verification from Ethisphere Institute of Scottsdale Arizona. The Ethisphere Institute is advertised as an independent centre for research, best practices and thought leadership. The institute defines and measures corporate ethical standards, recognizes companies that excel, and promotes best practices in corporate ethics. The Compliance Leader Verification award is claimed to be prestigious and “is awarded exclusively to companies with the best industry ethics and compliance program that are proactively investing resources in compliance.”

“SNC-Lavalin’s performance was specifically evaluated on six main areas: program resources and structure, perceptions of ethical culture, written standards, training and communication, risk assessment, monitoring and auditing, enforcement, discipline and incentives” and its performance was benchmarked against the 2018 World’s Most Ethical Companies data set. “The structure of the program [at SNC-Lavalin] is exemplary, adopting many leading practices that reflect the company’s genuine commitment to integrity in all of its actions. In addition, the visible leadership provided by Neil Bruce and Dr. Hentie Dirker at the helm reflects true adherence to doing business the right way, and communicates that message to SNC-Lavalin employees around the globe.”

This suggests that SNC-Lavalin should have passed one of the major tests for a DPA if it has indeed reinvented itself to ensure a culture of honesty and transparency.

However, as many now recognize, the SNC-Lavalin affair is really not about corporate governance but about political governance. One of my readers in his colorful style put it this way:

As you stated in the beginning, whether or not to issue a DPA is largely irrelevant to the scandal or to Canadians. We were NOT privy to the department’s information or deliberations. Even the fact that SNC has a reputation is irrelevant to the larger, more philosophical point: did the PMO exert undue pressure on what should have been entirely JWR’s jurisdiction. Key word: undue. As in; too much. Inappropriate. Wrong.  

Oddly, even that question is over our (your reader’s heads). Too much and inappropriate are subjective and, in law, are determined by a judge and only a judge.  

So. what REALLY is the issue? If the SNC part is not relevant (and it is not).  And the influence has yet to be ‘judged’ by a court…why all the fuss and bother?

The real issue is JWR being demoted. Punished. Humiliated (in her own eyes, anyway). And the “perceived sense” of Trudeau and Gerry NOT managing their ministers well. Right or wrong on the decision re SNC is – to the average Canadian – simply a “he said, she said” issue. We don’t care.

And – this is sad, really – we don’t too much about the “influence or pressure” exerted. In fact, most Canadians WANT their MP/MLA to ‘exert some pressure’ now and then on the usually unfeeling, inhuman, glacial pace of the bureaucracy. That Trudeau ‘politicked’ some raised his stature in my eyes. ESPECIALLY because he said, “Ultimately the decision is yours”. 

So, we are back to the real issue. And that, to me, is that JWR was picked for reasons sexist and racist. She had only 3 years experience practicing law. I have more experience than that and I am not even a lawyer! She was chosen “cause she looked good” and that is the real crux of the issue. Trudeau got elected on saying and looking good. Which is fine but, not if you don’t back that up. He reneged on promises and he pulled the carpet out from under an unqualified AG. He rode the image, but put her down when she proved ultimately inadequate. You cannot have it both ways.

JWR should have been kicked out long ago. She implemented a policy of “lending support to all issues of indigenous nature – regardless.” She, essentially put indigenous issues above the law. That was bias. That was wrong. But that is NOT the reason given for her demotion…why? Because that might not look good (assuming Trudeau even knew).  

The issue, Howard, is NOT SNC or DPAs. It is NOT even the rift between the ministers and the PMO. It is that Trudeau is running the government like a spoiled brat “millennial” elitist picking people based on image, saying the light and frothy happy-boy things, apologizing to everyone for everything and NOT keeping the promises he made to get in and constantly relying on good looks to get out of trouble. Philpott and JWR (despite her inadequacies) do not like being lead by a teen idol. 

I am also a bit peeved that he resorted to “dropping” JWR without saying the ONE GOOD REASON to do so.

Remember: JWR deferred to her deputy because she REALLY HAD TO. JWR does not know enough to argue a good defense of a parking ticket. The Deputy does.   

David Cox

There it is, the crux in its briefest and perhaps colorful form. The issue is not about the corruption within and of SNC-Lavalin or whether it has reformed sufficiently. It is not even about whether other ministries and the PMO pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) inappropriately. They unequivocally did not apply pressure illegally. They did repeatedly push the issue of reconsidering offering a DPA or, at least, having an external senior judicial figure undertake an independent review of whether one could and should be offered.

The real issue, for Cox, is Justin Trudeau’s style of governance. Justin is accused of choosing ministers, not based on talent, skills, professional and political experience, but on the basis of appearances. That is then compounded by both a mushy unwillingness to bring his ministers in line and a refusal to be direct and honest about why JWR was demoted to Veterans Affairs.

Another reader sent me an email with a letter that he had sent in response to a column of Tom Walkom. It reads as follows:

Hello Tom,

I read your column, agreeing with parts of it, disagreeing with others, until I reached your final sentence. At that point I almost choked on my morning coffee. You write that if Justin Trudeau’s wounds become mortal, “Wilson-Raybould is primed and ready to replace him.”

This is a delusional fantasy, either hers or yours. One thing that JWR has guaranteed by her actions is that she will never be the Liberal leader or, indeed, the leader of any political party except one that she may found herself. She has demonstrated that she cannot be trusted and is prepared to damage her party to satisfy herself. That is a political no-no, no matter what the motive.

In politics, loyalty is of central importance. As Sir John A. is supposed to have said: “I don’t need your support when I’m right, I need it when I’m wrong.” To put it crudely, you don’t piss inside the tent. Those who do may have a future in politics, but as a rule that future is not in the party whose brand they have damaged. That JWR is still in the Liberal caucus is due to an unwillingness to make a martyr of her. But if she loses her seat in the next general election, I doubt that many of her colleagues will grieve.

I write this not as a Liberal but as a historian of Canada. My opinion is shared by several acquaintances, among them lawyers, journalists, academics, business people, and a union executive, with whom I’ve discussed this matter over the last couple of weeks. Let it be added that everyone of them thinks that frustrated ambition has more than a little to do with JWR’s actions. Several fault the PM for appointing a political neophyte to a senior portfolio that she was unready for. Most think that she used the Globe and Mail for her own ends, and that the Globe allowed itself to be used. I heard especially strong criticism of John Ibbitson.

No doubt we will hear more about and from JWR, but not as Liberal leader. My own guess as to whom will succeed JT when he goes: Chrystia Freeland.

This suggests that the issue goes even beyond Justin Trudeau’s style of governance but to the very heart of governance in a parliamentary democracy, namely party loyalty and cabinet confidentiality. How do the actual events stack up against these possibilities?

The crisis of the SNC-Lavalin affair was not about SNC’s criminal behaviour, nor about how the government should treat that behaviour judicially. The difference of opinion and interpretation only became a “scandal” when Trudeau was forced to undertake a minor cabinet shuffle after one of his ministers, Scott Brison, told the PM that he would not be running again for a seat in parliament. The liberal domination in Nova Scotia was at stake. Reluctantly, in spite of attempts to avoid a shuffle, Trudeau was forced to undertake one. In doing so, Gerry Butts declared that the SNC-Lavalin issued was never even considered in deciding on cabinet changes. Matching skills, commitments, regional considerations to positions was the problem. If political management was the central problem, the following questions need to be answered:

  1. Was Justin Trudeau (JT) premature in appointing JWR to cabinet and to such a senior role given her absence of political experience?
  2. Did JT and Gerry Butts (GB) fail to read JWR’s determination to stand behind her decision and fail to understand both her character, her strong commitment to principle and her experiencing those “requests” as inappropriate pressure?
  3. Did JT and GB forget what JWR had said about indigenous affairs and how she would respond, if offered that responsibility?
  4. When Veterans Affairs was substituted, why did Gerry and Justin decide to effectively demote her; why did they not anticipate how she would eventually react?
  5. Why did JT boast of JWR’s confidence in himself when challenged, rhetoric which supposedly “forced” JWR to resign lest her staying in cabinet be misinterpreted?

The resignation of Gerry Butts, since he was only very peripherally involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair, but was centrally involved in the cabinet shuffle, indicates that he really resigned because he was responsible for advising on the shuffle and his experience and instincts had failed him.

To be continued

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