OTTAWA—The leaders of the major opposition parties accused Justin Trudeau of abusing his power and are calling on Canadians to reject the Liberals in the coming federal election after Parliament’s ethics watchdog ruled Wednesday that the prime minister broke the federal conflict of interest law during the SNC-Lavalin affair.
In Regina, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer revived his call for a police probe into whether Trudeau’s actions — which he described as “unforgivable”— amount to criminal conduct.
“He clearly put his partisan interests ahead of the democratic institutions that have served this country so well for over 150 years,” said Scheer, who first called on Trudeau to resign over the controversy in the spring.
“Justin Trudeau needs to be defeated, and Canadians will have that opportunity on Oct. 21,” Scheer said. “The correct response is for Canadians to vote out a corrupt Liberal government led by a prime minister who still cannot accept responsibility for his actions.”
Speaking in Victoria, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh charged the report shows Trudeau can no longer be trusted and said the prime minister has a lot to apologize for.
“We have evidence that (Trudeau) caved to the demands of SNC-Lavalin, to a powerful corporation, to change the law to effectively get them off the hook” for criminal charges, Singh said.
“How do we believe them when we see that they’re working to use their influence and power, not to help people, but to help those who are at the very, very top? And that’s just wrong.”
The report by ethics commissioner Mario Dion concludes Trudeau breached federal conflict of interest law by trying to influence his former attorney general to make a decision that would further SNC-Lavalin’s private interests.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Liberal cabinet minister at the heart of the controversy, accused Trudeau and his office of inappropriately pressuring her to halt the criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin, after the company lobbied to receive a newly created remediation agreement to agree to reforms and pay a fine instead of going to trial.
The company is charged with fraud and bribery for work in Libya between 2001 and 2011, when the dictator Moammar Gadhafi was in power.
In his report, Dion concluded Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Act by overseeing an effort to influence Wilson-Raybould to overrule prosecutors who decided last September not to offer SNC-Lavalin one of these remediation deals.
It is the second time Trudeau has broken this law; in 2017, the former ethics commissioner ruled Trudeau improperly accepted gifts from the Aga Khan, a wealthy religious leader whose foundation lobbies the government and receives federal funds.
The latest finding carries no legal penalty, but the real sanction could come in the court of public opinion now that the ethics commissioner has shined a light on Trudeau’s conflict of interest violation, said Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
“The optics are terrible,” she said, pointing to how Dion placed blame on Trudeau for the conduct of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office regarding SNC-Lavalin.
“It’s almost a perfect set up: the report comes down, points the finger at the prime minister, and we have an election in two months,” she said.
David Coletto, chief executive of the polling firm Abacus Data, said it is too early to see how Dion’s report will affect public opinion. He believes many voters will already have made up their minds about the SNC-Lavalin controversy, though the report might make it harder for Liberals to win over people who were open to voting for the party until now.
But the timing is clearly troubling for Trudeau and the Liberals, he said.
“It certainly throws an additional hurdle into the Liberals’ reelection chances,” Coletto said. “It gives the opposition parties more material to use against them and I guess the conclusion is that it adds further uncertainty to what already was an uncertain and volatile election.”
For Charlie Angus, one of two New Democrat MPs who called on Dion to investigate Trudeau’s conduct in the SNC-Lavalin affair, the final report is indeed welcome.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, Angus called the finding “unprecedented” and predicted it would tarnish Trudeau’s image in the lead up to the election.
“What kind of government thinks it can write tailor-made laws to get corporate criminals off the hook?” Angus said.
“This is political kryptonite for the brand of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga