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Chantal Hébert: It’s crunch time for the lead players in the SNC-Lavalin affair

Chantal Hébert: It’s crunch time for the lead players in the SNC-Lavalin affair
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MONTREAL—As the SNC-Lavalin affair enters its second month, its protagonists are at the crossroads. From the main opposition parties to the prime minister and including the ex-attorney general at the centre of the ongoing crisis, all have strategic decisions to make on the way forward.

Start with Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. Polls show that even as Justin Trudeau’s personal brand has taken a hit — at a cost to the Liberals in voting intentions — Scheer’s political persona has not grown on voters.

If prosecuting government scandals was a fast track to winning federal elections, Brian Mulroney would never have secured back-to-back majorities in the ’80s and Thomas Mulcair would be prime minister.

Over his first four years in power, the former Tory prime minister lost seven cabinet members to a succession of controversies.

Fast forward from the Mulroney era to Stephen Harper’s last years in power and to former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s stellar performance in the role of prosecutor-in-chief of the Conservative government over the period of the Senate spending scandal.

In the closing year of the Harper decade Mulcair consistently eclipsed Trudeau in question period — only to find his former junior partner in opposition sitting on the government side of the House after the 2015 election.

If the electoral past is any indication, it is debatable whether the best way to win more voters over to the notion that the Scheer-led Conservatives offer a desirable alternative to the Liberals is to double down on SNC-Lavalin.

In the process, Scheer might end up auditioning for the job he already holds in opposition rather than for that of prime minister.

And then what of the NDP? Its leader Jagmeet Singh desperately needs his maiden appearance in the House of Commons next week to be a turning point for his flagging party. From that angle, the crisis that has engulfed Trudeau’s government could be construed as an unexpected gift.

And yet so far, the Liberal losses in voting intentions over the affair have not translated into gains for the New Democrats. When it comes to SNC-Lavalin, they may be flogging an electoral dead horse.

In its current weak position, the NDP offers neither a promising outlet for those who would seek an alternative to the Liberals on account of their handing of SNC-Lavalin, nor a safe haven for voters who do not in the process want to trade a progressive government for a conservative one.

The prime minister has some crucial choices of his own to make. So does Jody Wilson-Raybould .

Trudeau is under pressure from the opposition to lift whatever restrictions remain on her capacity to discuss her final weeks in cabinet as veterans affairs minister with the justice committee.

He will have to weigh whether resisting such calls only makes him look like he has something to hide against what potentially embarrassing material she might have to offer the public.

At the same time, the former attorney general will have to ponder how many more broadsides she can launch at her leader while still remaining on the Liberal team.

Meanwhile the SNC-Lavalin file is live again. On Friday, the Federal Court rejected the firm’s challenge of the justice department’s decision to take it to trial on corruption charges rather than offer the negotiated plea it had been lobbying for.

Wilson-Raybould’s successor as attorney general has consistently maintained that the option of directing the government’s prosecutors to alter their chosen course is still open. Is David Lametti seriously considering walking that talk?

The repercussions of the past month’s crisis on the government extend well beyond the specifics of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Jane Philpott’s resignation as president of the Treasury Board will force Trudeau to reshuffle his cabinet for the third time in as many months. The more the prime minister toys with the carpentry of his cabinet the higher the risk that he will have to force more and more square pegs into round holes.

And then it is one thing for Trudeau to get his ministerial ducks back in a row and another more difficult task to adjust to running a government without Gerald Butts in the Prime Minister’s Office.

No government can lose a player in a role as central as that of the former principal secretary without entering into a zone of relative turbulence, especially in an election year and especially with Trudeau himself caught in the crosswinds.

The time may be coming — as it does with every issue — when public fatigue with the SNC-Lavalin story sets in. But whether the government is in a sound enough place to do better than lurch to an increasingly competitive fall election is not a given. The presentation next week of the last Liberal budget of the current Parliament will offer some clues.
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