This is too innocuous for the Americans, too wholesome for Latin America, too complicated for the Swiss and Scandinavians
The SNC-Lavalin affair is the quintessential Canadian controversy.
It is alleged by unnamed sources that the former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was pressured to order her officials to assess fines rather than prosecute executives for financial crimes in the matter of SNC-Lavalin’s methods in seeking certain construction contracts in Libya, not a country where the Better Business Bureau rules commerce with an iron fist.
At a later date, Ms. Wilson-Raybould consented to be moved to the position of associate minister of national defence and minister of veterans’ affairs, generally considered a demotion.
When rumours circulated in the media about the propriety of allowing the company to pay fines rather than prosecute some of its executives, the prime minister defended the government, denied the rumours, and stated that the minister’s continued presence in the government was proof that the rumours were unfounded.
The minister then resigned, but has since attended a full caucus meeting and had a calming effect on the Liberal MPs.
She has said nothing publicly because of the delicacy of lawyer/client privilege opposite the prime minister, who has declined to waive the privilege.
This is, in fact, bunk. The prime minister was not the client of the minister of justice in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the prime minister doesn’t have any standing to waive anything on this subject, and his invocation of cabinet secrecy is twaddle, especially after the subject was aired before the entire Liberal caucus.
This is Canada, the land of Dudley Do-Right, and before him, of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing Rose-Marie in the Rockies
All government spokespeople deny any official misconduct or impropriety but the principal secretary and chief strategist of the regime, Gerald Butts, resigned, with the novel explanation that although nothing inappropriate had occurred, he thought the air should be cleared, so he walked the plank.
This is the point at which this supposed scandal becomes uniquely Canadian.
A minister belatedly resigns but informally continues to attend cabinet and expatiate on this issue and the government reinforces its protestations of absolute innocence of wrongdoing by the prime minister accepting the abrupt resignation of the most influential non-elected person in the government (and he also had a great deal more influence than almost all the elected ministers and MP’s).
I invite any reader to cite another country where a minister would consent to be shuffled down, maintain a complete silence while her father, an indigenous leader, has conducted an entertaining non-stop press conference denouncing the “white man’s justice,” although he has clearly gamed the system pretty well for himself, and the head of the prime minister’s office and closest collaborator of the prime minister resigns while proclaiming that nothing improper has been done and that he is only sacrificing himself to satiate the false accusers.
This is too innocuous for the Americans and major European countries, too wholesome for Latin America, too complicated for the Swiss and Scandinavians, too discrete for Australia, and small potatoes for the Japanese.
This is Canada, the land of Dudley Do-Right, and before him, of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing Rose-Marie in the Rockies. The story line of this scandal is absurd, but in its way, magnificently Canadian.
In so far as the aroma of scandal has arisen and been maintained at all, it is largely by the usual remarks about shabby Quebec business ethics and large companies being protected from the consequences of their misdeeds by their size and the political influence of their principals.
Sales incentives of one kind and another are not confined to Quebec and it is often difficult to distinguish legitimate concessions to make a deal from outright bribes. In this case, the allegation of $48 million in bribes and $130 million fraudulently received is impressive in its quantum and does raise at least one eyebrow. But it is unjust and unseemly for media and public opinion to leap to the conclusion that a fine rather than an expensive criminal trial of uncertain outcome is craven and corrupt truckling to the fatcat chums of the Liberal party.
Everybody, especially in such a woolly state of affairs as this, deserves a presumption of absence of guilt
Such an event would not be unprecedented, but it should not be presumed.
The theory being bandied about that SNC-Lavalin is being spared because prosecution would bankrupt it is spurious.
Companies have to disgorge funds sometimes but they don’t commit crimes; people do, and everybody, especially in such a woolly state of affairs as this, deserves a presumption of absence of guilt. And if executives are fairly judged to have committed crimes, they face the sentences but the company continues in the hands of people with better judgment and ethics.
SNC-Lavalin has had its ups and downs, but it is a legitimate Canadian international business success story and should not be summarily castigated as financially and ethically bankrupt on allegations as flimsy and unsourced as these.
Nor, as a country, should we be in the business of trying to drive a large and successful company into the hands of the receiver.
The receivers are a bigger gang of crooks than any corrupt executives in this country going back to the CPR scandal of 1873. The entire bankruptcy system of this country is an outrage and Wilson-Raybould should have done something about that when she had the chance.
Gerry Butts will be missed by this government. I disagree with many of his policy ideas, especially his irrational faith in renewable energy — both its efficacy and the need for it.
He largely carries the can for the McGuinty-Wynne negative Economic Miracle in Ontario that almost bankrupted this splendid jurisdiction.
And I assume he has had some hand in the unmitigated pipeline and indigenous peoples policy disasters as well. But he is a capable man and something of a likeable scoundrel, a continuator, to a degree, of the cynical and often humorous competence of the men who performed in comparable roles for former Liberal prime ministers King, St. Laurent, Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau: Jack Pickersgill and Jim Coutts.
It will be hard for the government to spin this one other than damagingly, and whatever Gerry’s policy shortcomings, he is an astute political tactician, taking his cue from David Axelrod and even Sol Alinsky, far from the most wholesome American political influences.
Nothing less than an ingenious hard-baller could have kept the ramshackle McGuinty roadshow going at Queen’s Park as long as he did. There is another interpretation of events.
Gerry Butts’ political virtuosity presumably remains available to the Liberals this election year. If the government makes it, he can earn and receive much of the credit, because it will certainly not be swept back in on its record. If it is reversed at the polls, he will not be burned on the funeral pyre, and will be able to mount another Mephistophelean effort with Justin’s successor, or even, as Jack Pickersgill did, and Jim Coutts almost did, make the jump to elected politics himself.
If Gerry Butts’ political career ends here, it will be an absurd anti-climax, unless there is a lot more to this than meets even the inquisitive eye.
This is a strange, hardly believable, crisis, and it’s hard to see where it’s going. Whatever happens, the country’s sense of humour is unlikely to be disserved.
Conrad Black is the founder of the National Post. His columns regularly appear in the National Post on Saturdays. For more opinion from Conrad Black, tune into The Zoomer on VisionTV (a property of ZoomerMedia Ltd.), Visiontv.ca.