OTTAWA—This is going to make us better.
It’s the kind of thing a coach tells her players in the locker room after a tough loss. Yes, this hurts. But we can use this to grow. Losing builds character. Et cetera. You’ve seen the movies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a similar sentiment Thursday when he took to the podium at the National Press Theatre on Parliament Hill to make his most deliberate statement yet about the SNC-Lavalin controversy.
“This has been a tough few weeks,” he said. “I can tell you without a doubt that I have taken, and will continue to take, many lessons from these recent days and weeks.
“Ultimately,” he continued, “I believe our government will be stronger for having wrestled with these issues.”
Let’s discuss some possibilities for improvement.
Split the MOJAG
Like Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former cabinet minister at the centre of this affair, Trudeau floated the idea of making a fundamental change to Canada’s system of parliamentary governance: hiving off the position of attorney general from the justice minister.
Under the Westminster system that Canada inherited from Britain, the justice minister assumes a second role that no other cabinet members have. Under this role — attorney general — the justice minister has judicial powers that, according to constitutional convention, must be exercised independently of partisan concerns that otherwise occupy the government of the day.
This, in fact, is the crux of the controversy that has swamped the Trudeau government. Wilson-Raybould, who was minister of justice and attorney general (MOJAG) until Trudeau shuffled her to a new role in January, has accused the prime minister and staff in his office of inappropriately pressuring her to halt a criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, including for political reasons such as the Liberals’ electoral fortunes. It does seem somewhat self-evident that a tension would exist between the need to toe the party line as a cabinet minister while simultaneously operating independent of such considerations as attorney general.
For Amanda Alvaro, co-founder and president of the media-strategy outfit Pomp & Circumstance, the idea of finally doing what has been debated for years and “separating this dual role of attorney general and justice minister” was the “biggest and most significant thing” to come out of the prime minister’s press conference.
There’s a reason “this has come up many times before,” says Alvaro, “because how do you vigorously protect and defend the independence of the AG and still have political discussions in the context of being the justice minister?”
You can’t, really, concurs Emmett Macfarlane, the associate chair of graduate studies at the University of Waterloo’s political-science department. Which is why it’s a good idea to separate them.
“Political scientists have been writing about this for quite some time now, well before this,” he says. “I don’t know that would have necessarily have prevented all of this from happening because they might take the same attitude with a separate attorney general, but in the long run, what you would have by separating those roles is you would develop a culture where the attorney general isn’t treated just like any other cabinet minister and that we would recognize that there’s a bit of a firewall between normal policy issues that cabinet ministers around the table deal with and the rule-of-law issues that an attorney general needs that independence to deal with. The institutional change would then, hopefully, be followed by a meaningful cultural change in how that role is treated.”
On Thursday, Trudeau said he will seek an “external opinion” on whether to split the dual role of the MOJAG.
Treat grey areas as red zones
What the SNC-Lavalin scandal has revealed is that some of the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes business that occupies the Prime Minister’s Office, federal ministers and their staffers, while not technically illegal, can often venture into what Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts has termed a “grey area” that was perceived by Wilson-Raybould — and indeed by much of the Canadian public at large — as inappropriately crossing ethical lines.
But if this “grey area” is going to cause so much confusion and consternation, wonders Macfarlane, wouldn’t it be best to steer clear of that whole hornet’s nest in the first place? He’s also not sure that Trudeau, who seems steadfast in his opinion that he was only doing the right thing to protect SNC-Lavalin jobs in Quebec, has realized the potential cost of conducting parliamentary business in this grey area.
“If Mr. Butts is acknowledging that this is a grey zone or grey area, why are you playing in a grey area?” offers Macfarlane. “The safe thing, to me, is to treat the grey area as, in fact, a red zone that you should avoid just for ethical propriety and that’s where the discussion needs to be if there’s going to be a lesson out of this. The prime minister, unfortunately, at today’s press conference indicated he still feels nothing is wrong. I don’t think he’s actually being very self-reflexive in looking for a ‘teachable moment,’ in looking for what lessons should be learned from that. The discussion shouldn’t be ‘What does the law allow?’ and that’s going to be the baseline for our behaviour; the discussion needs to be ‘What ethical boundaries should we add on top of the formal rules or laws that exist and how should we conduct ourselves to ensure that an attorney general doesn’t have conflicting perceptions about the messages she’s receiving?’”
Which brings us to the next point: shouldn’t communication between the Prime Minister’s Office and federal ministers be clear and specific enough that there’s no room left for different “truths” to be perceived on different sides?
“There was an erosion of trust, a lack of communications to me and to my office” by Raybould, Trudeau said Thursday, “and that is certainly something that I’m having to reflect on as a leader, and that I’m looking forward to improving on as we go forward. I’ve always tried to foster an environment in which people can come and share with me their concerns, large or small, whether they be cabinet ministers or caucus members. But there is always room for improvement, obviously.”
So how to improve those communications? How does Trudeau establish, as Alvaro puts it, “a more direct, open access between himself and his members”? This is something the SNC-Lavalin affair is, at least, going to force the PMO to figure out.
“How do you clear the lines of communications between his office and the minister’s office? I don’t know what that looks like,” says Alvaro. “Maybe it looks like more regular meetings, maybe it looks like having more than one person at those meetings so that nothing is misinterpreted, maybe it looks like a written summary coming out of those meetings so that everybody’s on the same page. I think any of those items would have been helpful.”
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga