Susan Delacourt: Trudeau’s damage-control plan is aimed at Liberal MPs
|Toronto Star 18 Mar 2019 at 14:25|
Conservatives and New Democrats were less than impressed when Justin Trudeau rolled out three big steps on Monday to address the damage of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
But the opposition wasn’t the intended target of the measures — which included the , a mini-shuffle of the cabinet and the appointment of former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan as a special adviser.
Disaffected Liberals — and former minister Jody Wilson-Raybould in particular — are clearly the top-of-mind concern for the prime minister in this new repair effort he’s launched.
So the test of Trudeau’s fix-it measures isn’t whether they placate the critics, but whether they help bring Liberals back to the fold in the days ahead. That in fact may be a theme of the week — or even this entire election year.
Take Monday’s damage-control measures one at a time.
The departure of Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick is significant. As testimony has unfolded at the Commons justice committee, it became evident that much of the “undue pressure” on Wilson-Raybould came from Wernick himself.
It was Wernick who had multiple conversations with Wilson-Raybould on subjects ranging from the prime minister’s mood, to the looming Quebec election, to SNC-Lavalin’s economic worries. It was Wernick who took a call from SNC-Lavalin board chair (and former clerk) Kevin Lynch at one point last fall and who talked to Wilson-Raybould about the need to consider an upcoming board meeting at SNC-Lavalin and possible relocation of headquarters if she failed to give the Quebec firm a plea deal on corruption charges.
All of that came from Wilson-Raybould’s own, searing testimony a few weeks ago.
Wernick talked in his exit statement on Monday about how the opposition had lost confidence in him — which is true. It’s also true that he needed the opposition parties’ confidence to do his job on election oversight later this year.
But if Trudeau is interested in keeping Wilson-Raybould in caucus, Wernick’s departure could be reassuring, if not a price for regaining her confidence in the prime minister.
Then there’s the appointment of McLellan, who also served as a long-time justice minister in past Liberal governments. Conservatives and New Democrats mocked this measure as “Liberals judging Liberals,” but McLellan has been appointed to address a concern that has arisen in this whole SNC-Lavalin saga — one that Wilson-Raybould has addressed herself.
This is, namely, the question of whether it’s time to separate the jobs of justice minister and attorney-general, to eliminate any blurring of lines between legal and political functions.
McLellan has already served the Trudeau government as lead adviser on introducing cannabis legalization — which went well, despite predictions of chaos or reefer madness in the streets.
Moreover, it’s precisely her connection to past Liberal governments that could prove to be an asset for Trudeau, much criticized for keeping veteran Liberals at arms’ length from his government. Bringing McLellan into the SNC-Lavalin repair effort signals to diehard Liberals that voices of the past aren’t being totally discounted by the Trudeau team, as is often alleged.
That brings us to the cabinet shuffle on Monday as well.
Many Liberals were surprised, even disappointed when Trudeau failed to put Vancouver MP Joyce Murray into his first cabinet in 2015. Murray ran a strong second to Trudeau in his leadership race and it’s customary for prime ministers to include former rivals in the cabinet. (The exception was Paul Martin, who expelled Sheila Copps from the ministry when he was sworn into office in 2003.)
Murray has been a team player, even as Trudeau turned his back on democratic reform — one of her big issues in the leadership. She also made it clear that she disagreed with the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans-Mountain pipeline.
Murray isn’t the only Liberal disappointed in these decisions; she in fact symbolizes some disenchantment that has set in within Liberal ranks about the way that Trudeau in office has failed to live up to the promise of Trudeau on the campaign trail.
By putting Murray in cabinet, Trudeau is again sending a signal to Liberals: you can disagree with the PMO and stay in the fold; that the Liberal caucus and government is big enough to handle disparate views. And yes, that includes differences that Wilson-Raybould has expressed — or those expressed by former minister Jane Philpott, another casualty of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
On Wednesday, Philpott and Wilson-Raybould will be at the big Liberal caucus meeting, and one item on the agenda is whether they can remain in caucus after expressing dissent with the PM’s leadership.
The wider question, though, is whether Trudeau has replied to that dissent — and wider disenchantment that has set into Liberal ranks because of the SNC-Lavalin saga.
The measures rolled out on Monday are that reply. Trudeau may have had his eyes on the opposition on Monday when he talked in the Commons about addressing the SNC-Lavalin concerns, but his words and repair efforts were aimed at Liberals sitting beside and behind him.