Optics of new deferred prosecution legislation don’t look great

While it is a likelihood most Canadians who aren’t political junkies are already sick of hearing about SNC-Lavalin and what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did or didn’t do, the scandal is likely going to continue on as more testimony trickles in from the key players. Their words might change opinions and they might reinforce them.

The conclusion bandied about by the prime minister’s supporters that it was inherently Trudeau’s job to do everything in his power to seek a solution that allows SNC-Lavalin to generate wealth for its employees and to keep that wealth with a Canadian company is a fair one.

Though Trudeau has been maligned about the fact that involvement might be related to his role as a Quebec MP or the Liberals’ election fortunes in his own province, from a cynical view, that’s reasonable to expect too. While most would like to see their politicians separate the public good from their electoral fortunes, the two are closely aligned. That former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould said senior civil servants spoke to her about partisan goals, however, paints a worrisome picture of the environment.

The instance of Trudeau and senior staff members pressuring Wilson-Raybould likely mirrors many disputes that don’t find their way into the public eye across a wide number of ministries in governments of every stripe. Often, they end quietly in cabinet shuffles. Whether intended or not, there have been rumblings for years of power being more and more centralized in the office of a prime minister or a premier at the expense of a cabinet or caucus — that perception is one of the factors that led to Stephen Harper’s eventual ousting. That leader, that public face of the government, becomes the boss and has the confidence of the party to choose who to appoint to positions, until that confidence is lost.

The difference here is that the attorney general is in a position to intervene in an independent judicial system. It seems Trudeau chose well in appointing a legal mind who fervently believed in that freedom, but didn’t find one whose views aligned with his wishes in this instance.

Through it all, the public will be left with a “he said, she said” account that does little, other than spark debate about Trudeau’s motives during in election year and raise questions about the top-down style of management and culture of partisan politics he pledged to move past. It’s something the electorate will be forced to weigh.

All that considered, the more important questions to ask might be why the Canadian government finds itself in this controversy. While a sad commentary on the state of business, the notion Canada needed a deferred prosecution tool to support its companies on par with others like the United Kingdom and the United States is fair. The fact it was introduced last year, but still applied to charges already laid and queued before the courts, is not.

Trudeau and his supporters can talk a good game about not interfering with the judicial system, but in this instance the new legislation did exactly that. It raises the more serious consideration of whether those changes were introduced with an eye to helping SNC-Lavalin, which lobbied aggressively for deferred prosecution and whose former executives were caught investing in two federal parties — most prominently the Liberals — on the company’s behalf. Either it was an oversight or it wasn’t. In either case, the optics don’t look great to a casual observer.

– Adam Bramburger