Conservatives, NDP express qualified confidence in privy council clerk to flag election interference

Conservatives, NDP express qualified confidence in privy council clerk to flag election interference
OTTAWA—Both the opposition Conservatives and New Democrats expressed qualified confidence in Canada’s top bureaucrat to sound the alarm about election interference after his unprecedented — and some suggest partisan — intervention in the SNC-Lavalin affair .

Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council, delivered remarkable testimony to the House of Commons’ justice committee Thursday, largely backing the Liberal government’s case about alleged pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Because his version of events matched up with the Trudeau government’s, and because he specifically called out a Conservative senator for adding to increasingly violent political rhetoric and praised a Liberal cabinet minister, some — including the Globe and Mail — have called Wernick’s testimony “partisan.”

That is a serious claim that carries serious consequences.

As the country’s top bureaucrat, the clerk of the privy council wields incredible power. They’re 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 minister’s 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 it’s clear neither Conservative or NDP MPs were pleased by Wernick’s intervention on Thursday, both parties told the Star they will accept his determination should he inform Canadians about foreign interference.

“We will accept it as legitimate, but we will be skeptical. And we will expect to be fully informed,” said Stephanie Kusie, the Conservatives’ democratic institutions critic and a former diplomat, in an interview Friday night.

“We 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.

“Absolutely we will accept it as legitimate, but with great skepticism and with complete information.”

On Thursday, Wernick opened his testimony with a blunt warning to MPs.

“I’m deeply concerned about my country right now, and its politics, and where it’s headed,” Wernick said.

“I worry about foreign interference in the next election ... I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence, when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ 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.”

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 Trudeau’s staff attempted to interfere with Canada’s independent judicial system by pressuring Wilson-Raybould to offer SNC-Lavalin a “deferred prosecution agreement.” 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 Mail’s first story three weeks ago.

Wernick said Wilson-Raybould was “under pressure” to make the right decision, but denied any untoward pressure from Trudeau’s staff to cut SNC-Lavalin a deal.

“It 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,” Wernick told the committee.

But after Wernick’s 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 clerk’s independence.

“I beg the Liberals: don’t ignore this, don’t pretend we’re not in a very important conversation that needs to be had,” Cullen said.

“People are having the conversation on the front page of national newspapers about the clerk’s independence. That is happening. Whether you think (columnists) are crazy, or you think this person is an anointed saint, it almost doesn’t matter now. It’s happening now, the neutrality is being discussed and questioned.

“And if that is the case, and you’ve created this new body, and the central actor is being questioned, then you need to do something about it,” Cullen said.

When the Star asked — yes or no — if Cullen and the New Democrats would accept Wernick’s 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.
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