What will Canada learn from Lavscam testimony?

J.J. McCullough

Political scandals often victimize the public twice – first from the scandal itself, second from the flurry of bad policy offered as the cure.

Canadian journalists enjoyed being scandalized on Wednesday by the testimony of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould before the justice committee of the House of Commons. Over the course of nearly four hours, the former cabinet minister publicly confirmed for the first time that she had indeed been subjected to a “barrage” of political pressure from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to spare the powerful Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin from fraud and bribery prosecution. She claimed her subsequent firing when she wouldn’t comply triggered thoughts of President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” Other similarly vivid snippets of testimony will doubtless loom large in the Canadian media for weeks to come.

Yet if this scandal is destined to end – as scandals often do – with showy “reforms” intended to assure the public that such things will never happen again, it’s important that we be clear about what, specifically, the public is supposed to be angry about.

One narrative would posit that the “Lavscam” episode highlights the degree Canadian prime ministers will move heaven and earth to appease Quebec corporate interests – and Quebec more broadly – even at the cost of severe political risk. Wilson-Raybould noted that Trudeau’s people repeatedly tried to guilt her over all the jobs that could be lost if Lavalin was found guilty. Here one might note that his government has not mustered similar empathy for the worsening state of the Albertan oil industry – which employs far more Canadians than Lavalin’s 8,800 – but Quebec’s unique hold on Ottawa’s imagination is nothing new.

There’s no obvious policy solution to this interpretation of Lavscam. Wilson-Raybould repeatedly said she believed Trudeau broke no law. If the prime minister is a deeply unethical man whose priority is defending crooked corporations from the consequences of their crimes, then the best correction is to simply elect a government with different priorities.

The notion that Lavscam is a case study in Quebec corporate power has not been the media’s or politicians’ preferred frame for analyzing the scandal, however. It certainly did not shape Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. Questioned as to why she believed SNC-Lavalin did not deserve a mediated settlement – what Trudeau’s people wanted – she simply deferred that the specifics of their case was “before the courts.”

Instead, the frame favored by Wilson-Raybould, her credulous audience of parliamentarians and the Canadian media has been the supposedly “very inappropriate” spectacle of Canada’s elected leader refusing to trust the judgment of the person he picked to be the country’s top lawyer.

The attorney general of Canada also holds the portfolio of “minister of justice,” and Canadians have been subjected to much lecturing in recent weeks that these jobs must be understood as completely separate. The justice minister helps draft laws in sync with her government’s partisan agenda, but when acting as attorney general, she must ensure that laws already passed are enforced without political consideration.

What constitutes a “political” consideration can be quite subjective, however.

The conclusion one is expected to draw from this framing of the scandal is that attorneys general should be afforded enormous deference to make prosecutorial decisions with as little oversight by the elected head of government as possible. Such logic receives warm reception within the faction of the Canadian elite inclined to believe that governments work best when maximum decision-making power is held by a well-credentialed caste of “nonpartisan” technocrats.

At several points, Wilson-Raybould suggested future attorneys general might benefit from not being a member of the prime minister’s cabinet at all. Should her advice be heeded, one can imagine a future in which the head of the justice department is installed through the same sort of opaque and unaccountable bureaucratic process that now selects most Canadian judges, public prosecutors and civil servants.

A system of government built on ample deference to unelected, “apolitical” mandarins is hardly one free of bias and ideology.

In a democratic system, elected politicians such as Trudeau enjoy a mandate to direct the government. That they often use this power poorly, or even toward crooked ends, makes the case for electing better people. There is danger that the shocking magnitude of Trudeau’s misrule, however, will be cited as justification to further erode Canadians’ control over the government actors whose decisions most impact their lives.

J.J. McCullough is a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver. © 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group.