Conservatives, NDP express qualified confidence in privy council clerk to flag election interference
|Toronto Star 23 Feb 2019 at 13:11|
OTTAWAâBoth the opposition Conservatives and New Democrats expressed qualified confidence in Canadaâs top bureaucrat to sound the alarm about election interference after his unprecedented â and some suggest partisan â intervention in the SNC-Lavalin affair .
Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council, delivered remarkable testimony to the House of Commonsâ justice committee Thursday, largely backing the Liberal governmentâs case about alleged pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeauâs office on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Because his version of events matched up with the Trudeau governmentâs, and because he specifically called out a Conservative senator for adding to increasingly violent political rhetoric and praised a Liberal cabinet minister, some â including the Globe and Mail â have called Wernickâs testimony âpartisan.â
That is a serious claim that carries serious consequences.
As the countryâs top bureaucrat, the clerk of the privy council wields incredible power. Theyâre tasked with not only supporting the prime minister and cabinet in the day-to-day functions of government and receiving top secret briefings, but leading the greater public service in both its operations and its culture.
Wernick, who has served in senior bureaucratic roles in both Conservative and Liberal administrations, has also been asked to lead a five-person committee tasked with informing Canadians if a hostile foreign power attempts to meddle in the 2019 campaign. While the committee includes the prime ministerâs national security adviser, as well as senior officials in the public safety and global affairs department, Wernick is the most senior official at the table.
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If the opposition believes him to be politically compromised, any pronouncement about foreign intervention would be immediately suspect. In other words, if the opposition parties accuse Wernick of supporting the Liberals, his sounding the alarm on election interference would be fatally compromised.
But while itâs clear neither Conservative or NDP MPs were pleased by Wernickâs intervention on Thursday, both parties told the Star they will accept his determination should he inform Canadians about foreign interference.
âWe will accept it as legitimate, but we will be skeptical. And we will expect to be fully informed,â said Stephanie Kusie, the Conservativesâ democratic institutions critic and a former diplomat, in an interview Friday night.
âWe will expect to have all of the information, insofar as it does not compromise national security, that the government had in making that decision as to it being a critical incident.
âAbsolutely we will accept it as legitimate, but with great skepticism and with complete information.â
On Thursday, Wernick opened his testimony with a blunt warning to MPs.
âIâm deeply concerned about my country right now, and its politics, and where itâs headed,â Wernick said.
âI worry about foreign interference in the next election ... I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence, when people use terms like âtreasonâ and âtraitorâ in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassinations. I worry that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the election campaign.â
Columnists and partisans were quick to point out that electoral interference, not to mention the possibility of political assassinations, were not the topics the committee was grappling with.
Instead, the committee was tasked with investigating allegations, broadly untested and unconfirmed, that Trudeauâs staff attempted to interfere with Canadaâs independent judicial system by pressuring Wilson-Raybould to offer SNC-Lavalin a âdeferred prosecution agreement.â Such a deal would allow SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal prosecution in favour of restitution, and remain eligible to bid on federal government contracts.
Official Ottawa has been almost entirely consumed with the SNC-Lavalin affair since the Globe and Mailâs first story three weeks ago.
Wernick said Wilson-Raybould was âunder pressureâ to make the right decision, but denied any untoward pressure from Trudeauâs staff to cut SNC-Lavalin a deal.
âIt is my conclusion and my assertion, based on all the information I have, that there was no inappropriate pressure on the minister of justice in this matter,â Wernick told the committee.
But after Wernickâs testimony, both in Ottawa and in the social media swamp, people accused the clerk of going to bat for the Liberals.
Nathan Cullen, the New Democrats ethics critic, said on Saturday the Liberals need to move quickly to address any suggestion the clerk is compromised when it comes to election interference. Cullen said the Liberals cannot ignore that people are raising the question of the clerkâs independence.
âI beg the Liberals: donât ignore this, donât pretend weâre not in a very important conversation that needs to be had,â Cullen said.
âPeople are having the conversation on the front page of national newspapers about the clerkâs independence. That is happening. Whether you think (columnists) are crazy, or you think this person is an anointed saint, it almost doesnât matter now. Itâs happening now, the neutrality is being discussed and questioned.
âAnd if that is the case, and youâve created this new body, and the central actor is being questioned, then you need to do something about it,â Cullen said.
When the Star asked â yes or no â if Cullen and the New Democrats would accept Wernickâs determination that foreign actors were interfering with the 2019 election, Cullen said yes.
Cullen also said he believes the head of Elections Canada, Stephane Perrault, should be involved in determining whether Canadians should be informed about electoral interference.