Defined simply, democracy is a government of the people. Though there may be apathy and disconnect at times among the masses for the people they elect, those people are in office to serve them. By extension, a government’s assets belong to the people who pay them and its interests should reflect those held by a majority of those people.
The federal government has been marred in scandal over the past week amid allegations that someone in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office pressured Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in an ongoing prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec construction company known to have ties to the Liberal party. The minister had since been transferred to another portfolio before resigning from cabinet entirely.
While Trudeau has denied claims Wilson-Raybould was given direction on the file before being shuffled out of the justice ministry, the former attorney general has declined comment stating that she’s bound by solicitor-client privilege, limiting her ability to comment publicly.
Opposition parties and some in the legal profession have argued it is in the interest of the Canadian public that Wilson-Raybould be allowed to speak freely. One would think the government might be inclined to agree, seeing that the lingering question leaves an air of suspicion, whether justified or not. But it all comes back to that well-established principle of the legal profession that conversations between counsel and clients are to be protected to allow for unprejudiced judicial review.
The trouble, in this instance, is that the Canadian government is not a routine client working its way through the legal system. Rather than simply being accountable to itself, it stands in the place of the electorate as a whole and, as such, has a duty of accountability. Looking at the composition of that government — and most federal and provincial Canadian governments in history, the attorney general is often among the cabinet ministers that are elected in a partisan manner. Given that, the attorney general is, effectively, his or her own client. That makes it inherently difficult for that person to maintain an objective position when it comes to political questions such as this.
The public is left to weigh, then, where the line should be drawn between political directives from a cabinet minister’s boss or items that constitute legal strategy. Given that Wilson-Raybould was appointed to her post while an MP, it is logical to conclude as Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has that her testimony on the file is a matter of public interest, rather than simply case strategy or a greater national secret in needs of protection.
The controversy suggests that maybe it is time that Canada reforms its convention and permanently separates Minister of Justice portfolio from that of the attorney general so there’s no blurring of the lines that keep cabinet ministers from answering about their own portfolios.
Until such time, however, the justice minister has both a political and legal role to play and they will overlap. The people will be the ones to decide where the line is between political discussions and interference. In this case, more information might ease some minds about what took place. Without it, Trudeau’s inner circle will be tried in the court of public opinion leading up to the October election — and, so far, the verdict doesn’t exactly look rosy.