National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Franz Kafa couldn’t script it better. The Trudeau PMO stands accused of interfering in a legal process and the former Attorney General is the only one who can clear the air; but she refuses to do so, citing solicitor/client privilege. Meanwhile, the prime minister, her client, twists in the wind yet, inexplicably, fails to waive his privilege so the former AG can rescue him.

Readers should be blinking. Fortunately, late Friday night a key piece of the puzzle fell in place. Anonymous government officials confirmed to the Globe and Mail that the PMO had discussed the Lavalin issue with Jody Wilson-Raybould.

These officials go on to warn Canadians not to “conflate or confuse a “vigorous debate” in the Prime Minister’s Office or among the PMO and members of cabinet over how to handle SNC-Lavalin’s charges with an effort to put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould.”

In other words, yes, there was a tense exchange between the PMO and the former Justice minister, and now the PMO is getting us ready to hear its side of the story. To help put this in focus, let’s recap developments over the last two days.

When the Globe story broke, most people took Wilson-Raybould’s silence as confirmation that the anonymous sources were right: she felt she had been pressured by the PMO. Her silence, as Susan Delacourt noted, spoke volumes.

Wilson-Raybould tried to explain away this silence through solicitor/client privilege, but it convinced no one. It only shifted attention onto the prime minister. “Why doesn’t he just waive his privilege and let her speak?” asked Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt.

Now it was the PM’s silence that was speaking volumes: presumably, he wouldn’t waive privilege because he was worried about what she might say.

This latest Globe story clarifies a lot. According to its anonymous sources, communication between the PMO and the Justice Minister on this issue is appropriate. Indeed, they believe there is nothing wrong with “vigorous debate” on such an issue, so long as it isn’t a way to apply pressure.

But therein lies the problem. People can and often do disagree about when pressure is being applied. The anonymous sources seem to be suggesting that at some point in these “debates” Wilson-Raybould felt she was being pressured, even though PMO officials believed they were “just debating.”

This is certainly plausible. Debates have a way of becoming suddenly and unexpectedly tense and that can feel like pressure. Apparently, that is how the anonymous sources in the Globe’s initial story viewed these debates, though we don’t know if they were in the room when the exchanges took place or just reporting second-hand what they heard from Wilson-Raybould or others.

But if we now have some clarity, there are still some things that don’t add up. First, if Wilson-Raybould were harbouring dark secrets about the PMO’s comportment, she should have resigned from cabinet – perhaps weeks or even months ago. That’s what a person of principle would do and, as her final communique from Justice shows, she clearly views herself in that light.

If she steps forward now to accuse her government of interfering in the judicial process, and of demoting her for standing firm, she will also need to explain why she chose to remain in cabinet (in a diminished role) rather than resign.

Second, accusing the government of interference will heighten the growing suspicion that she is behind the original leak to the Globe. In this view, the story is payback for her cabinet demotion.

Finally, the story has been damaging to the whole government. If she did leak it, she is apparently willing to pull down everyone in cabinet to get even with the PMO.

Rather than someone of high principle, this picture is of someone that clings to power, is vindictive, and shows no regard for her cabinet colleagues. Not a flattering image.

So, what happens next?

If Wilson-Raybould speaks out, she obviously has some explaining to do, as does the government. The right course would be an impartial and transparent process to decide whose version of the story is right. That would require close questioning of the parties involved, and a careful, nonpartisan assessment of the facts and evidence.

The Conservatives and NDP have called for an emergency session of the Justice committee to investigate. They plan to call nine high-ranking officials to testify under oath. The Liberals, of course, have a majority on the committee, so they will have to agree. We’ll see next week if they do.

Or, perhaps there is another shoe to drop. Unforeseen developments in a story like this should not be surprising. So, let’s all stay tuned.

Finally, what if Wilson-Raybould just never speaks out? Suppose she continues to claim solicitor/client privilege, the PMO refuses to waive its right, and it insists that the anonymous sources in the Globe story are wrong?

According to the second Globe story, the PMO is declining to say whether it will waive this privilege. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it is hoping that the story will just fade away.

It would be a very Kafkaesque conclusion, but then nothing should surprise us in Ottawa.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
Click here for more political news headlines