So much for the Trudeau government’s plans to get past the SNC-Lavalin saga.
Just in case anyone failed to make the connection between that long-running story and the strange case of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, superstar defence lawyer Marie Henein was only too happy to draw some clear lines on Wednesday.
“Fortunately, Vice-Admiral Norman didn’t fire the females that he hired,” Henein joked after introducing Norman’s all-women team of lawyers. For the record, Justin Trudeau didn’t actually fire Jody Wilson-Raybould or Jane Philpott during the SNC-Lavalin controversy — they quit their cabinet jobs in protest — but no one could miss the shot at the prime minister.
Henein made a number of direct and indirect references to SNC-Lavalin in a 30-minute encounter with reporters after the government’s breach-of-trust case against a top-ranking military officer was abandoned on Wednesday.
She delivered a mini-lecture on why the director of public prosecutions should be kept away from political pressures — also a central theme at the heart of the SNC-Lavalin story. And while Henein said she wouldn’t comment on whether political pressure played a part in the SNC-Lavalin tale, she more or less indicated throughout her remarks that she leaned that way.
“Other people had to pay a price to protect that institution,” Henein said, in reference to the political independence of the public prosecutor and, presumably, those two ex-ministers.
In the shorthand that developed throughout the SNC-Lavalin controversy to distinguish sides in the story, Henein’s collected remarks on Wednesday would definitely land her with “Team Jody.”
For months now, people familiar with the Norman case have been saying that if and when the trial got going, it would make SNC-Lavalin look like a walk in the park for the Trudeau government.
On the face of it, the two cases were very different, at least in the details. Norman had been accused of leaking secret government information in connection to cabinet decision-making around huge shipbuilding contracts. The SNC-Lavalin case revolved around Wilson-Raybould’s allegations of undue political pressure placed on her to grant a plea deal to the big Quebec infrastructure firm.
But the undercurrents and even some of the characters in both stories are similar, up to and including Scott Brison, the former Treasury Board president whose January resignation set in motion the cabinet shuffle that vaulted Wilson-Raybould to outsider/whistleblower on the Trudeau PMO. “Blame Brison” also became SNC shorthand.
In the Norman case, Brison was more of a central figure, accused of politically tinkering in the decision on who would get a lucrative shipbuilding contract. Much speculation revolved around whether Brison got out of politics to escape the Norman trial. In the end, the whole government escaped, with the abrupt announcement on Wednesday that the case against the vice-admiral was being dropped.
The decision to walk away from the case and free Norman from a two-year-long legal ordeal was not politically motivated, said everyone on all sides.
But there’s no question it was politically advantageous for Trudeau and his government, who could well have been plunged into another SNC-style controversy even closer to the fall election. It would have been another round of accusations about undue political interference, more allegations of throwing good people under the bus to preserve the government’s image or connections with powerful firms. That all came on Wednesday instead.
Stephen Harper’s government had a reputation as being hyper-controlling, and ultra-harsh with those who got on the wrong side of it. Trudeau’s government has worked hard to be seen as the anti-Harper regime on this score, but the SNC-Lavalin tale and the Mark Norman case put large dents in that claim. In each instance, critics charge, there has been zero tolerance for people — even high-level people — who make trouble for the sunny-ways government.
Scandals generally stick to politicians when the allegations are seen as part of a pattern. Two cases may not add up to a pattern, but they plant some reasonable doubt, to borrow a legal term. Henein, a lawyer, has obviously been connecting some dots between what she saw of the Trudeau government in SNC-Lavalin and what she experienced as the chief lawyer for Norman. Trudeau and his team are no doubt hoping that voters do not do the same.
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