Justin Trudeau looks dejected. Photo: Shutterstock

View from Canada: Justin Trudeau is mired in scandal—can he survive?

With an election looming, the Liberal Party is hoping voters have short attention spans
April 1, 2019

When Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister of Canada in 2015, he swiftly gained international attention as a young, attractive, and progressive face; soon after his victory, hundreds of shrieking fans mobbed him at the APEC summit in Manila in a scene more fitting a rock star than a politician. The election of Donald Trump only raised his stature; as recently as February this year, a New York Times columnist cheered Trudeau and proclaimed Canada as “a moral leader of the free world.”

The following day, a media report brought Trudeau’s image tumbling down: it alleged that the prime minister’s office had repeatedly pressured former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to suspend criminal prosecution of Canada’s largest engineering and construction firm, SNC-Lavalin, which had been charged with having bribed Libya’s Gaddafi regime. The PM’s office proposed an alternative approach under which the company would pay a fine and implement strict anti-corruption compliance measures. Such agreements, common in elsewhere in the world, became part of Canadian law last year, almost certainly to accommodate the company.

The revelations put Trudeau on the defensive. He equivocated, saying the story was false, that Wilson-Raybould had not been “directed” to drop the case, something not alleged. To get his way, he had instead demoted her to the lowly portfolio of Veter- ans Affairs, which she accepted. But sources in the prime minister’s office exacerbated Trudeau’s problem by bad-mouthing her in the press, which did not sit well with her or the public. Trudeau said her continued presence as a minister in the government indicated she supported him.

But the story refused to go away and Wilson-Raybould resigned, with another minister following suit, saying “the whole story” has not been told. (This is very unusual in Canada; 1963 was the last time multiple ministers resigned over an issue of principle, when a Conservative government refused an American request to station nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.)

The Liberal caucus is deeply divided over whether the two former ministers ought to be expelled from the caucus and denied the right to run as Liberals in the coming Octo- ber election. Party discipline is much sturdier in Canada than in Britain. In Canada, a party’s leader must sign a candidate’s nomination paper if the candidate wishes to carry the party’s label on the ballot. Nominations by local constituency associations can be overridden, although they are usually manipulated by the leader’s entourage to produce the leader’s preferred candidate.

Canadians want to know more. Wilson-Raybould has said her ability to “speak my truth” was limited by solicitor-client privilege—some Liberal MPs are challenging her to speak her truth in parliament where it would be protected by parliamentary privilege. The Conservative leader has called on Trudeau to resign, a non-starter, and has asked the police to launch an obstruction-of-justice investigation. Whether they will, they won’t say. Trudeau has hired a personal lawyer and other lawyers have been hired to represent his staff.

This is a typical Canadian scandal: no money or sex for any politician’s direct benefit, and yet something smells rotten. Trudeau says he merely wants to save SNC-Lavalin from going under and taking down its 9,000 innocent Canadian employees.

Individual members of the old management team at SNC-Lavalin have been prosecuted and the company has completely new management and a new board of directors, headed by the former clerk of the cabinet, Canada’s most senior public servant. And whether the company is convicted at trial or gets away with Trudeau’s alternative, it will pay a heavy fine. But any criminal conviction under current law could prohibit the company from bidding on any Canadian government contracts for the next decade, and damage its reputation abroad. What foreign government would deal with a company blacklisted by its own government?

In politics, perception trumps all. Trudeau looks, and deserves to look, bad because he wasn’t transparent. Will the Liberals lose the October election? If the election were to be held this week, they probably would. They are counting on the public’s short attention span.

Canada’s Liberal Party has been the most electorally successful liberal party in the world since the late 19th century. They may not win a majority in October but don’t count them out. And if they lose and Trudeau resigns, don’t be surprised if the opportunistic Liberals turn to Wilson-Raybould to lead them. She says she spoke truth to power and the public believes her.