Justin Trudeau is often accused of being too emotional and talking too much.
The prime minister exhibited neither trait publicly in the events that led to Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation on Tuesday, and that probably played a large part in this dramatic unravelling at the top levels of Trudeau’s government.
Wilson-Raybould is not the first Liberal to find herself on the outs with Trudeau and his team — everyone from long-time, appointed senators to seasoned party veterans have also seen this leader’s frosty side. It’s now well acknowledged that while Trudeau may be emotional, he is not sentimental.
However, Wilson-Raybould is the first to land a serious blow in reply — all without ever uttering a word in public.
In fact, the prime minister himself handed her the ammunition in this strange war of no words playing out in the headlines this past week.
Hours later, Wilson-Raybould turned her presence into absence — a permanent one.
“I am aware that many Canadians wish for me to speak on matters that have been before the media over the last week,” she said in her cabinet-resignation statement. You can say that again. Call it an understatement. Some public words are certainly warranted now; not just by her, but by all involved, including the prime minister.
It is, when you think about it, truly remarkable how much of this high-level breakup took place wordlessly before Canadians. Consider the chain of events:
- In early 2018, a measure is tossed into the federal budget that would allow firms such as SNC-Lavalin to get a “deferred prosecution agreement” when facing criminal charges. No one said too much by way of explanation.
- Last fall, if anonymous reports are true, all kinds of intense conversations were under way behind the scenes in government about whether SNC-Lavalin should be getting such an agreement. Not a word in public — we’ve only learned in the past week that the issue was the subject of discussion between Wilson-Raybould and the prime minister, and with his principal secretary in early December.
- In January, Trudeau unveiled a new cabinet lineup that moved Wilson-Raybould out of justice and into veterans’ affairs, without too much explanation for why this might be a better fit. The minister too was tight-lipped about any potential disappointment. Why did she issue an unusually lengthy statement on her accomplishments at justice? Could it be that she felt no one else — i.e., the prime minister — was going to say it for her?
- Then there was The Globe and Mail’s bombshell report last week on how alleged PMO “pressure” led to Wilson-Raybould’s move — revelations made with only the most minimal words in accusation and reply from all involved.
Granted, this mime show has only been for public consumption. Behind the scenes, we know a lot of talking was going on.
We know that there was a lot of conversation, for instance, around where Wilson-Raybould would go in the January shuffle. When the decision was made to move Jane Philpott into Treasury Board to fill the vacancy of the departing Scott Brison, we’ve been told that Wilson-Raybould was offered Philpott’s old job of Indigenous services and reportedly turned it down, arguing she couldn’t preside over the Indian Act when she’s fought all her life against it.
We are now led to believe too that many conversations were going on about SNC-Lavalin — just not in any form that could be reported or made public.
Trudeau and his principal secretary have acknowledged that they talked to Wilson-Raybould about the issue, but the conversations were, by their account, brief to the point of dismissive. If those conversations had been longer, more substantial, could this all have been avoided?
The prime minister has cultivated a skill for saying a lot in public without saying much. Sadly, this is a skill to which many politicians aspire.
On this issue in particular, Trudeau has carefully limited his public words to strict legalese. The problem is that the whole controversy revolves around the political. Wilson-Raybould had two jobs — justice minister and attorney-general. One is political, one is legal. The SNC-Lavalin case put those two roles in some kind of conflict. So it isn’t sufficient for any of the players in this story — especially Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould — to keep treating this as a case for legal brevity. It’s been coming across as defensive, not responsive.
The ethics commissioner’s inquiry, announced on Monday, won’t include words uttered in public. The justice committee’s study, to be discussed on Wednesday, might include some more elaboration by all involved, though not if it simply becomes another exercise in legalese or careful talking points.
The entire unravelling of the Trudeau-Wilson-Raybould relationship has been a silent movie before Canadians for well over a month now — some might say many months. It now needs a public soundtrack.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt