For the first time since the SNC-Lavalin story broke, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould has “spoken her truth.” Testifying before the House of Commons justice committee, Wilson-Raybould outlined the “inappropriate” and “sustained” political interference she claims to have withstood from “many people within the government.”
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is the first time the former cabinet minister has directly addressed the allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office pressured her to push for a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin, which would allow the Quebec company to reach a remediation agreement rather than face prosecution for corporate crimes including bribery.
While the federal ethics commissioner has launched an investigation into the details of the alleged interference in the SNC-Lavalin case, Canadians are not likely to wait for the final verdict before reaching their own conclusions. Unfortunately for Trudeau, Wilson-Raybould’s testimony has likely poured fuel on a fire that is already burning his reputation.
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony has added specificity to the vague allegations swirling in the media and repeatedly evaded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. According to Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, she was pressured through phone calls, emails, text messages, and in-person conversations by eleven people in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, and the Office of the Minister of Finance. Wilson-Raybould was specific in the accounts she gave of some of these instances, providing precise dates of conversations and even reading out text messages verbatim.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told the media that what made Wilson-Raybould’s testimony so credible was the level of detail she provided. If Canadians see this the same way, it could give weight to Wilson-Raybould’s word in the he-said-she-said game.
The detail provided by Wilson-Raybould may also reduce the effectiveness of Trudeau’s statements following the testimony. Speaking from Montreal, he repeatedly told the media that he disagrees with the “characterization of events” by the former attorney general. Given the large number of communications cited by Wilson-Raybould, it will likely take more than such a blanket rebuttal to convince voters to give Trudeau’s side a chance.
Further making things difficult for Trudeau is Scheer’s immediate call for the Prime Minister to resign. The Conservative leader presented Wilson-Raybould’s testimony as fact, stating that Trudeau has “lost the moral authority to govern” now that “Canadians know what he has done.” While such a public call for resignation carries no procedural weight, it is significant in the way that it frames the situation, particularly in terms of the severity of Trudeau’s alleged wrongdoing. Insofar as Canadians take cues from political leaders, Scheer’s call for resignation could further draw attention to the situation and damage the Prime Minister’s reputation.
Perhaps more harmful to Trudeau was his own response to Scheer’s statement. Answering a media question about the call for resignation, Trudeau rebutted that voters will soon have “a very clear choice,” referencing the upcoming federal election. Although this may seem at face value like a benign statement, it risks inviting pressure from the opposition to call the federal election earlier than its scheduled date in October. While not a request the Liberals would likely succumb to, refusal to do so could draw attention to insecurity within the party and could even be framed by the opposition as undemocratic.
Trudeau’s illustration of the “clear choice” facing voters in the upcoming election may also end up backfiring on the Liberals. He characterized the Conservatives as a party that thinks “the best way to create economic growth is to give advantages to the wealthiest,” and contrasted this with the Liberals who have “consistently stood up for Canadian jobs.” Considering that Trudeau is facing allegations of inappropriate action precisely to preserve jobs associated with a wealthy corporation, this kind of framing may not do his credibility any favours.
What does seem to be on Trudeau’s side is the House of Commons’ sitting schedule. Members of Parliament will take a two-week break from the House starting next week to allow time for MPs to engage with constituents in their ridings. This means that the Liberals will have a two-week break from Question Period, where they would otherwise be grilled by the opposition on the SNC-Lavalin situation. Two weeks may be enough for much of the fallout from yesterday’s testimony to blow over. It will also provide some much-needed time for Trudeau and his staff to sort out their strategy, potentially allowing them to get ahead of the allegations and move from a reactive approach to a proactive one.
Conversely, the two-week break also means a hiatus in caucus meetings as Liberal MPs are scattered across the country in their constituencies. This may complicate things for Trudeau on the team-cohesion front, as signs of his MPs siding with Wilson-Raybould have already started emerging.
For now, a Liberal MP praising Wilson-Raybould is simply showing support for a party colleague. However, Trudeau stated last night that he will need to carefully review Wilson-Raybould’s testimony before deciding whether she can remain a Liberal MP. If he chooses to remove her from caucus – or if she decides to resign – this would make alliances between Liberal MPs and Wilson-Raybould even more symbolically dangerous for Trudeau. If she chooses to cross the floor or run under another party’s banner in the next election, this could be especially damaging to the Liberals. Considering Wilson-Raybould’s individual popularity, her joining another party (the NDP, for instance) could completely change the electoral landscape.
Ultimately, the extent of the fallout from yesterday’s testimony remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the political consequences of the unfolding events are enormous.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image by Sujit Sivanand via Wikimedia Commons