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Chantal Hébert: Has Trudeau begun to put the SNC-Lavalin scandal behind him?

Chantal Hébert: Has Trudeau begun to put the SNC-Lavalin scandal behind him?
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MONTREAL—After a week of stunning developments on the front of the SNC-Lavalin affair, is Justin Trudeau’s government any closer to a resolution of the most corrosive crisis of its tenure?

Are the Liberals worse or better off for the blunt unapologetic testimony of Canada’s top civil servant Michael Wernick in front of a parliamentary committee on Thursday? The short answer is a bit of both.

But first some context: if anyone still had doubts that this is a full-fledged storm and not a passing squall the sight of two of the biggest government players in the national capital stepping out of the shadows — one of them to self-immolate — should have dismissed them.

In terms of power and influence, Wernick in his ongoing role as Clerk of the Privy Council and Gerald Butts in the post of principal secretary that he relinquished on Monday, rank or ranked, just below the prime minister himself.

This is the week when polls started to document the damage to the Liberal re-election prospects. It is real and significant.

A Léger Marketing poll done for Canadian Press and published on Wednesday suggests voters are divided in their evaluation of the prime minister’s conduct, but the dividing line is not anywhere near where the Liberals would wish it were.

Among voters who are keeping track of the story, only a small minority — 12 per cent — readily agree with Trudeau’s assertion that he crossed no line in his dealings with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over whether SNC-Lavalin should be offered a remediation agreement in lieu of exposing it to a criminal conviction that would result in the firm being barred from bidding on federal contracts for a decade.

The rest are split equally — with 41 per cent on each side — between those who believe Trudeau is in the wrong and those who have yet to make up their minds.

Based on those numbers, the odds that the prime minister can ever win a majority over to his version of events range from slim to non-existent, notwithstanding all that may yet happen over the next few days and all that came to light this past week.

For the Liberals, the only win on offer in this battle may be to succeed in putting the issue behind them as long as possible before the upcoming election campaign gets officially underway.

After this week they are not there yet.

By the time Wernick appeared in front of the justice committee Thursday, Canadians had been presented with the double riddle of Wilson-Raybould and Butts’ resignations compounded by a series of unhelpful clues provided by the prime minister.

The Clerk was the first of the main protagonists in the saga to provide a comprehensive take on the internal discussions that attended the SNC-Lavalin file.

At a minimum, his testimony moved the goalposts of the story.

Before Wernick testified, it was possible to construct a narrative that featured partisan PMO operatives empowered implicitly or actively by the prime minister to wade into political interference territory so as to force the attorney general to follow his preferred judicial course in the SNC-Lavalin file.

The clerk’s appearance effectively killed the notion of a rogue PMO operation on the former attorney general. This one was sanctioned by no less than Canada’s top civil servant. Whether that is reassuring or makes the entire affair more ominous is a matter of debate and a vigorous one is already underway.

Yes, Wernick said, pressure was put on the attorney general — repeatedly and including by him — to weigh the consequences of putting a firm like SNC-Lavalin and the thousands of jobs that it provides at risk by pursuing a criminal trial rather than a remediation agreement. But he is adamant that pressure was neither undue nor inappropriate but rather a result of legitimate government efforts to “get it right.”

Part of Wernick’s role as Clerk is to provide the prime minister of the day and his political staff with guidance as to the lines they are not to cross in their dealings with the machinery of government. He would be the go-to person Trudeau and/or his advisers would consult if they had any doubts as to the propriety of their interventions. By his own account, he found no cause for concern.

Wernick’s unequivocal contribution to the SNC-Lavalin saga puts him on the same page as both Trudeau and Butts — a fact that can only be a source of comfort to both of them. But it essentially removes the already slim possibility that common ground could be found between the perspective the former attorney general will hopefully soon share with Canadians and that of the prime minister as to what took place between them.
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