No replacement in sight for Gerald Butts

No replacement in sight for Gerald Butts

Justin Trudeau isn’t looking for a new Gerald Butts.

It’s been two months this week since the SNC-Lavalin controversy claimed Trudeau’s right-hand man, and the Prime Minister’s Office is confirming that no new principal secretary will be coming in soon to replace Butts.

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arrives to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair on March 6.
Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arrives to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair on March 6.  (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

The position will remain vacant for two reasons, a PMO official said Tuesday on background. First, it’s too close to an election and second, there really isn’t anyone who could step into the very big shoes that Butts filled in Trudeau’s PMO.

So while it may be true that no one is indispensable in politics, it turns out that Butts was irreplaceable for this prime minister — at least for the rest of this mandate.

Whenever the history of Trudeau’s time in office is written — and two books, by journalists John Ivison and Aaron Wherry, will hit the shelves later this year — the breakup of the Butts-Trudeau working relationship will be seen as a signature moment.

Longtime friends, they walked side by side all the way, from McGill University to the office of the prime minister. Many said that Trudeau never would have become prime minister without Butts; now he is prime minister without him.

The friendship endures, the PMO spokesman said on Tuesday, but by all reports, the constant contact is definitely over. Butts noted in his March 6 testimony to the Commons justice committee that the two had only spoken once in the weeks after he submitted his resignation on Feb. 18. “This is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without talking to the prime minister,” he added.

Communication between the two men reportedly remains limited, even now that the SNC-Lavalin controversy has died down. Butts, according to his social-media posts, has been touring around North America, looking for what he’ll do next; at this point, no plans exist for him to work in any official capacity on the next campaign.

It was hard not to notice that Butts was a no-show last weekend when the Liberal Party’s Ontario wing held its big convention in Mississauga — his daughter’s swim meet in Ottawa took precedence, he said on social media — and he’s not working out of party offices, as some have speculated.

He really is gone.

Because Butts did so much in Trudeau’s government, from policy to strategy to networking with ministers, MPs and journalists, some of his roles have been spun off to others in government, PMO officials say. Even Trudeau has been doing more informal media relations, such as popping into a popular bar near Parliament Hill last week for an impromptu, after-work chat with journalists and Liberal staffers.

One of the knocks against Butts was that he did too much networking on the prime minister’s behalf, keeping Trudeau overly insulated from others, including cabinet members with grievances, such as former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

It’s worth noting that Wilson-Raybould, in post-SNC interviews, is now portraying her relationship with Butts in a more favourable light than she did in her bombshell testimony to the justice committee in February, when she cast him as a big part of the “undue pressure” she faced to make a plea deal with SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould recently told Maclean’s magazine that “Gerry and I didn’t have a negative relationship. Gerry always used to say, ‘I talk to you more than I talk to any other cabinet minister.’ That’s true, I guess.” She also said, “Gerry didn’t make me feel pressured.”

Trudeau, for his part, seems to be taking extra steps to be more accessible to ministers and others in the wake of Butts’s departure. He’s appointed a new special adviser, George Young, to be in charge of caucus relations and some MPs report that there’s more listening going on now in Trudeau’s PMO.

In his brief bar visit last week, Trudeau gave very few signs that he’d been knocked off his game by the loss of Butts or the whole SNC-Lavalin affair. He was still pumped up from Question Period last Wednesday, when he’d been taking shots at Conservatives for whipping up intolerance in Canada: “When will the Conservative leader finally denounce white supremacists by name?” he asked in one reply to Andrew Scheer.

Sitting with beer in hand a few hours later, Trudeau said he believed the Conservatives were leaving themselves as open on this flank as they were in 2015 during the election-campaign controversy over religious clothing and the niqab.

Asked how he was dealing with some of the more vociferous criticism of him in the media during the SNC-Lavalin storm, Trudeau shrugged and said he wasn’t reading much of it, adding that the angriest pundits had never been crazy about him being prime minister in the first place. He did confess to feeling stress over the past couple of months, but said he’d been working it off with occasional three-hour treks on cross-country skis through the Gatineau Hills.

Butts isn’t with him on those treks, nor is he at the prime minister’s side on the road, or in Ottawa, as he was up until that fateful breakup in February. His former office is vacant — and will remain that way until the next election.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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