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Conservatives worry Liberals’ budget announcements intended to distract public from SNC-Lavalin

Conservatives worry Liberals’ budget announcements intended to distract public from SNC-Lavalin
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OTTAWA — On the same day that Liberals are set to unveil their last federal budget before the next federal election, the House of Commons justice committee will hold a hotly anticipated, private meeting to discuss where to go next with its investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair.

During a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, opposition party MPs are expected to push the Liberal majority on the committee to invite former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould for a second appearance.

Despite the federal budget’s tabling later Tuesday afternoon — always one of the biggest political events of the year — all eyes should be on those closed doors, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre told reporters Sunday. “We expect that the prime minister will try to drown out this scandal with billions of dollars of irresponsible spending,” he said.

When she testified before the committee earlier this month, Wilson-Raybould accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his senior officials of attempting to politically interfere in the criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant.

The ex-attorney general said over the last four months of 2018, Trudeau and high-ranking officials repeatedly pressured her, including with “veiled threats,” to overturn the director of public prosecutions’s decision to deny SNC-Lavalin the opportunity to negotiate a remediation agreement. If the company was offered such a deal it could pay a large fine to avoid criminal charges and the possible ban on bidding for public contracts that would result from a conviction.

He will spray money in all directions in the hopes that Canadians will be distracted by the sights of their own money flying at them

Wilson-Raybould was removed from her position in January and resigned in February. During her initial four hours of testimony at the committee, she was bound to speak only about events leading up to the cabinet shuffle that demoted her — not about the lead-up to her resignation or indeed why she resigned.

Trudeau can loosen those constraints. Wilson-Raybould wrote to the justice committee offering to expand on her testimony should he do so. But at its most recent meeting last week the Liberal majority on the committee quashed a motion to invite her in.

“If the prime minister has nothing to hide, why not let her attend?” Poilievre argued on Sunday, adding Conservatives would use “every parliamentary tool in the tool kit to end the coverup and let her speak,” although he was mum on the details. One of those procedural tools, which Conservatives have not shied from using in the past, would be to trigger marathon voting in the Commons. That could delay the budget’s tabling.

Trudeau has admitted no wrongdoing in the affair, expressing only that he was concerned about the thousands of Canadians SNC-Lavalin employs, and that a breakdown of trust occurred between Wilson-Raybould and his staff, chiefly principal secretary Gerald Butts, who resigned over the scandal last month. “Early indications are not good” that Trudeau will give Wilson-Raybould more leeway to talk, Poilievre admitted.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the election Conservatives have remained preoccupied by the Liberals’ history of running budgetary deficits — last year’s budget predicted a deficit of $18.1 billion for 2018-19, and as of December, the finance department was predicting there wouldn’t be a balanced budget until 2040.

“We’re concerned that because (Trudeau) is trying to drown out the SNC-Lavalin scandal,” Poilievre said, “he will spray money in all directions in the hopes that Canadians will be distracted by the sights of their own money flying at them.”

He did not expand on what kinds of spending promises the Conservatives are particularly worried about, but said he thinks Liberals will have to increase taxes to pay for their promises if they are re-elected.

News reports ahead of Tuesday’s reveal indicate the budget is expected to  contain significant stimulus, including more money for new home buyers, for families, for skills retraining and for pharmacare. The next federal election is scheduled for October.

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