Chantal Hébert: Former cabinet ministers have Justin Trudeau in their sights
|Toronto Star 22 Mar 2019 at 13:58|
Had former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott sought to sabotage her government by breathing new life in the SNC-Lavalin saga this week, she would not have acted otherwise.
Her first post-resignation interview — given to Maclean’s on the day after the federal budget was presented — raised more questions than it provided factual answers.
Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould say they want to remain in the Liberal party, but they clearly have its leader in their sights, Chantal Hébert writes. (Matthew Usherwood / iPolitics file photo)
She blew on the embers of the controversy without adding a solid piece of firewood to it.
The main predictable consequence of the interview was to shore up the opposition parties’ contention that the Liberals are engaged in a coverup. Its timing was guaranteed to turn heads away from what was otherwise a relatively well-received pre-election budget.
Philpott did not provide a single new fact pertaining to the crux of the affair. That’s not just because she is constrained by cabinet confidentiality — a contention, in passing, that is increasingly challenged by parliamentary experts.
The reality is that she was not involved in or present for any of the interactions that are central to the matter. Whatever information she has in her possession about the high-level pressure former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould says she endured over her handling of the engineering firm is either second-hand or would pertain to events that took place after the fact.
At the core of the SNC-Lavalin affair is the allegation that the prime minister and his senior political and public service advisers crossed the line into interference with the justice system over the course of a series of discussions about SNC-Lavalin with the then-attorney general.
More specifically, Trudeau and others are alleged to have abused their power by seeking to have Wilson-Raybould revisit her decision to not direct her department’s prosecutors to offer the engineering firm a remediation agreement that would have spared it the risk of a criminal conviction and a 10-year ban on federal bids.
By definition, those crucial exchanges took place over the period when she was attorney general. That period was exhaustively covered in Wilson-Raybould’s testimony last month, as well as in those of former principal secretary Gerald Butts and Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick.
Over that central period, Philpott was Indigenous services minister. At no time would SNC-Lavalin have been relevant to her cabinet brief.
In the Maclean’s interview, the former treasury board president confirmed that as soon as she was apprised of the imminent shuffle, she queried the prime minister as to whether Wilson-Raybould’s refusal to redirect the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was the reason for her colleague’s reassignment.
In the same breath, Philpott said she was affronted by the suggestion that she had resigned her portfolio out of friendship with the former attorney general.
It is possible to believe she acted on principle when she left the cabinet but to also note that Wilson-Raybould — who is not the kind of social extrovert who shares her concerns with anyone who will listen — would not have confided in her colleague had the two not had a solid bond of friendship.
It was only as of the January cabinet shuffle that Philpott moved from peripheral player and sympathetic ear to active and vocal protagonist in the saga. And active she was.
It is already on the public record that she had a conversation with Trudeau on the plan to move Wilson-Raybould out of the justice portfolio. According to sources close to the government, that was actually one of many post-shuffle conversations with PMO interlocutors on the same topic.
It is presumably over the course of those exchanges that she and Wilson-Raybould gleaned the supplementary information they deem essential to share with the public.
Given the timeline, one can only assume that information is meant to contradict or at least undermine Trudeau’s assertion that the ex-attorney general was moved to veterans’ affairs for reasons other than her refusal to budge on SNC-Lavalin. By default, the January shuffle has emerged as the smoking gun in this affair.
On Friday, Wilson Raybould advised the justice committee that she would be filing additional written evidence pertaining to her initial testimony but also those of others.
One way or another, no one seriously expects the two former ministers to not eventually find a way to have their say.
At this juncture, there is also little lingering doubt as to who really has been and remains in their sights.
With one glaring exception, the main protagonists in this affair are already out of the picture. Butts has resigned and Wernick has decided to retire.
That leaves the prime minister.
With every passing episode in this saga, it is becoming more obvious that the Liberal party Philpott and Wilson-Raybould insist they want to continue to serve is one that is not led by Trudeau.