Editorial: Pressure to protect SNC-Lavalin necessary but at what cost?

Anyone who watched Jody Wilson-Raybould’s appearance at the House of Commons Justice Committee Feb. 27, would have admired the former justice minister and attorney general. She exuded integrity, competence, and strong values. She meticulously documented the pressure exerted over four months by Justin Trudeau, his top aides, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and his aides, and the Clerk of the Privy Council.

They were relentless in pressing her to intervene in the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions to replace fraud and bribery charges against the Montreal-based engineering giant, with a Deferred Prosecution Agreement that would mean lesser consequences and enable the company to continue to bid for government contracts, instead of facing a ten-year ban that would follow conviction.

Here is the crux of the matter. Yes, there was pressure and Wilson-Raybould alleges that the extent of the pressure was inappropriate. Her refusal to comply was heroic but was it appropriate to dismiss calls to consider the broader economic context? She took a rigid all- or-nothing approach and alienated herself from her government and its goals. Still, Trudeau should not have dismissed her as justice minister and attorney general, a
serious political error.

It is our view that Trudeau and Morneau would have been remiss had they failed to take an active interest in the kind of judicial process SNC-Lavalin would face. Trudeau and government spokespeople argue that the pressure was totally appropriate, given the anticipated consequences for almost 9,000 jobs, more than 5,000 in the rest of Canada, and for the firm’s pensioners, shareholders, the ripple effect elsewhere on the economy. Faced with a ten-year ban following conviction, there is a good chance SNC-Lavalin would be bought up and the head-office moved from Montreal. Certainly, and regrettably, the culture of corrupt practices was rife in SNC Lavalin and among its many affiliates, and it has been sanctioned for their dealings in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Uganda, Mozambique, and right here in connection with construction of the MUHC. The company says it has fired all employees connected with wrongdoing and adopted new ethical standards.

The reaction by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, calling on Trudeau to resign, and for an RCMP investigation, was merely self-serving and does no credit to his standing as a possible alternative as prime minister. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for a public inquiry was more nuanced, but equally premature. As Wilson-Raybould says, no crime was committed. The system worked!

The justice committee continues to hold public hearings on the issue, the House of Commons ethics commissioner is on the case, and vigorous debate continues in Parliament and across the country. Wilson-Raybould remains in caucus but her principled stand, which ran counter to the expressed will of her government, makes her stay there tenuous. The Trudeau government’s overall objective, to protect the jobs of an important company by calling for a deferred prosecution alternative, is legitimate. It is used by major countries whose firms compete with SNC-Lavalin in a world where in many countries there is no possibility of getting contracts without bribery. Canadian companies are put in the difficult position of having to compete in this environment.

There have been suggestions that an Attorney General should not sit in cabinet, as in the UK, removed from cabinet solidarity when it comes to prosecutorial decisions. Former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, says he suggested, while in cabinet, that the Justice and A-G portfolios be separated but it was not accepted.

There is a proposal for a panel of eminent jurists to be named to better define the limits on pressure that can be applied in cases such as this one.

Finally, in October, voters will have their say. They will have to consider whether the pressure the Trudeau government exerted was legitimate and whether another government would have acted in any other way.

We believe that the steps the Trudeau team took to protect SNC-Lavalin were necessary for the benefit of all Canadians. There was a legitimate and legal alternative to the hard line, and efforts to persuade the A-G to consider them were, according to her testimony, within the limits of the law.

Meanwhile, fraud and bribery charges against SNC Lavalin for its alleged $48 billion in bribery in Libya between 2000-2011 are proceeding in two Canadian courts.

Lesson learned: When you appoint an accomplished, principled and strong-willed aboriginal woman, a “truth-teller,” to enforce the law of the land, do not expect her to play the political games of deal-making and toeing the party line.

1 Comment on "Editorial: Pressure to protect SNC-Lavalin necessary but at what cost?"

  1. I concur with all of your editorial except for the last paragraph. It was not a question of toeing the party line but rather one of using common sense for the good of the country. It would be unfortunate if voters next Fall use this issue as a pretext to vote against he Liberal government.

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