Leadership strife is not at the root of the current troubles plaguing Justin Trudeau’s government.
Or is it? While Jody Wilson-Raybould’s split with the Prime Minister’s Office is not apparently linked to any leadership ambitions, it is abundantly clear now that the former justice minister is driving the bus in this whole saga over SNC-Lavalin.
So while Wilson-Raybould is not the leader or even a would-be leader of her party, she definitely has forced Liberals to follow her — if only to try to anticipate her next move.
On Monday, on the eve of her much-anticipated appearance at the Commons justice committee, Raybould demurred, issuing instead a long letter setting out the conditions under which she intended to speak.
Once again, without uttering a word about the specific grievances, Raybould is forcing everyone around her to react. Last week, she managed to get a hearing from cabinet and caucus — and this of course came after the resignation of Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
That’s pretty impressive clout for a rookie politician, new to cabinet and government a little over three years ago and a relative newcomer to the Liberal party.
In fact, it’s difficult to remember any other politician who retained the power to keep dictating rules of engagement to a Prime Minister’s Office after leaving cabinet.
When Lucien Bouchard left Brian Mulroney’s cabinet in 1990, that Conservative government carried on without him. Ditto for Paul Martin’s exit from Jean Chretien’s cabinet in 2003. Damage was done in both cases, certainly in the long term, but neither prime minister seemed overly concerned with keeping the departed minister in the fold.
Trudeau’s reaction to this whole saga has been curious. For several days after the story of Wilson-Raybould’s grievances about SNC-Lavalin first broke in The Globe and Mail earlier this month, the prime minister did not speak to her.
Then he spoke to her a couple of times in Vancouver and seemed to be confident she would stay in cabinet — until she quit, hours later. He apologized to her behind the closed door of the cabinet room last Wednesday, only to have her stand up in the Commons and warn that she was waiting a chance to “speak my truth.”
Late last year, Trudeau was asked in one of his year-end interviews to sum up U.S. President Donald Trump in a word. “Unpredictable,” Trudeau replied, which summed up a lot of things, especially his disciplined silence in the face of Trump’s trade-related tantrum after the G-7 meeting in Charlevoix last June.
In the end, Canada and the U.S. did end up signing a new trade deal a few months later and Trump stopped calling Trudeau and Canada names on his angry Twitter feeds.
Trump’s unpredictability isn’t Trudeau’s biggest problem now — Wilson-Raybould’s is. But when you think about it, the prime minister is handling them the same way, which is probably a mistake.
Trudeau’s strategy on Trump, distilled to its essence, was basically this: say nothing, don’t rise to the bait and fan out to seek allies and experts while the situation cools down. A similar strategy seems to be under way now, inasmuch as the Trudeau government’s response can be called a strategy.
But Wilson-Raybould’s disaffection with Trudeau and how she’s been treated is looking far more methodical than Trump’s episodic outrage of last year.
What’s more, in Trump’s case, Trudeau could count on most of Canada to be on his side. With some exceptions, Canadians were more likely to stick up for their prime minister in any battle with the unpredictable Trump.
This confident streak — maybe overconfident streak — is at the nub of the Wilson-Raybould saga now. It is striking to see the ways in which Trudeau and his team have just left the slate blank in this whole tale, banking on the conviction that Canadians will give them the benefit of the doubt.
Each day in the Commons, this is basically what Trudeau says — that Canadians know his government is balancing concern for jobs and the law. “Trust us,” he says, while the government fans out, looking for experts and allies to attest to Trudeau’s integrity and hoping that the mess will go away.
Sometimes scandals do blow themselves out; sometimes ministers — or angry presidents — just go away, and governments carry on in their absence.
Nothing in this nearly three-week-old saga over Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin gives any indication of following that pattern. Trudeau and his government aren’t leading themselves out of the controversy — they’re following and reacting — and Wilson-Raybould is doing the leading.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt