Just when it looked like the biggest scandal in recent Canadian history had blown over, SNC-Lavalin is back dominating the political-news cycle. A report from Canada’s ethics commissioner found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke ethics rules by trying to exert influence over former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, accusations which the prime minister had previously denied.
Ethics commissioner Mario Dion noted in his report that the PM violated a section of the Conflict of Interest Act, which states that people in public office can’t use their position to influence a decision that will benefit themselves or a third party.
To recap, in this case, that third party is Quebec-based engineering and construction conglomerate SNC-Lavalin. Back in February, the Globe and Mail broke the story that the PM’s office pushed Wilson‑Raybould to intervene so SNC-Lavalin could avoid criminal prosecution for allegations of corruption and fraud. (Prosecution would result in the loss of jobs and loss of support in Quebec. If you need a full refresher, revisit our handy SNC-Lavalin affair explainer).
In response to the ethics report, Trudeau told reporters today that he disagrees with some of Dion’s findings but that “the way that this happened shouldn’t have happened.” “I take responsibility for the mistakes that I made," he added, according to the CBC.
So, what are the implications of this bombshell document? The federal election is two months away. What does this mean for Trudeau’s chances of re-election? And where does Jody Wilson-Raybould fit into all of this? We reached out to Peggy Nash, a former NDP member of Parliament and current visiting professor at Ryerson University, and Grace Skogstad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, to find out.
First things first, what exactly are the ethics codes that Trudeau violated and why do they exist?
Peggy Nash: The Conflict of Interest Act (Dion’s report found that Trudeau violated Section 9) is designed to prevent someone in public office acting in private interest rather than on behalf of the public. In this case, it was the prime minister trying to influence the justice minister on behalf of a corporation that had a big impact in the prime minister’s own riding.
What did the ethics commissioner find that proves Trudeau broke the rules?
PN: He found that the prime minister tried a variety of means to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould’s decision so that she would make an agreement with SNC-Lavalin so that they could avoid criminal prosecution. The Liberals wanted a deferred prosecution agreement. That means, rather than going through a criminal prosecution, the (company) agrees to change its behavior in the future. It’s not unheard of, but the head of prosecution decided that SNC-Lavalin did not qualify, and Wilson-Raybould agreed. The ethics commissioner found that the prime minister and others working on his behalf tried to get the attorney general to change her decision. Ultimately, she stepped down as a result of this pressure.
So what happens next?
Grace Skogstad: There are no legal implications. The court of public opinion is going to determine whether Trudeau should be punished for this. We’re headed into an election so it’s very bad timing for him ... And this is not the first slap on the wrist. He took the holiday with the Aga Khan, so I think there’s a couple of cases here now that have suggested he hasn’t exercised good judgement in terms of avoiding a conflict of interest. That’s a problem for him.
Will Jody Wilson-Raybould respond? What do you think her reaction will be?
PN: I suspect she’ll respond to say she’s been vindicated. Her arguments have been vindicated. This is what she told people. I think this will help her re-election chances as she’s running as an independent. I’d be surprised if this didn’t help her significantly.
How will the ethics commissioner’s report affect Trudeau’s chances of re-election?
PN: Given the drop in support for the Liberals at the time of the SNC-Lavalin scandal ... it may undermine people’s trust in the Liberals. If you were already concerned, it may give you pause. On the other hand, some people may feel it’s an insider story and it doesn’t affect them directly. It’s not about dollars and cents in people’s pockets.
GS: The Liberals had moved ahead of the Conservatives in the latest polls, so we’ll know in the next week or so if this will factor in or not. At the moment, a lot of people think the Liberals are better than the Conservatives at managing the economy and also at climate change policy. There are a lot of younger people who are really, really concerned about climate change. If that demographic gets out and votes it will be an interesting demographic to watch.
What can we expect to unfold in the next few days?
PN: This story is back in the media for at least the next couple of days. If the Liberals are lucky, they will bury it with Anne McLellan’s report (after the ethics-commission report was released, former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan released her report on the SNC-Lavalin affair). The opposition parties will do whatever they can to keep reminding voters of this and make it remain in the news until election day. I think the bottom line is ... that this is all a good thing for the democracy of our country.