National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Last week, Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony rocked Ottawa like a Category 8 earthquake. Jane Philpott’s resignation is a second seismic event, possibly worse than the first. Trudeau’s challenge now is not just to respond to Wilson-Raybould, but to demonstrate that his government still has a moral compass.

All eyes, of course, are on the Commons, where Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, is scheduled to testify tomorrow, followed by Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick. Given Philpott’s resignation, Trudeau should re-think the plan. This is no time for surrogates. He should appear before the justice committee in person to defend his government. No one else can do that job. There are questions that need answering. Here are four that are bothering me.

Is Trudeau’s view on DPAs right?

Trudeau denies that the PMO bullied or pressured Wilson-Raybould. He says this was a disagreement over whether a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) was appropriate for SNC-Lavalin. He needs to convince Canadians he is right, but there’s an issue.

According to Wilson-Raybould, by the time she’d done her due diligence on the DPA, her mind was made up. The general view is that the law rules out economic considerations as the basis for a deal. Presumably, she agrees with this and was quickly convinced that SNC-Lavalin should be disqualified. Basically, she sees this as an open-and-shut case.

Trudeau disagrees and he insists that it was always Wilson-Raybould’s reading of the law that he was challenging, NOT her right to make the final decision on the case.

He says the stakes were too high to ignore – 9,000 jobs – and that as prime minister he had an obligation to confront her with the alternative view.

Yet, oddly, all the forces the PMO could muster weren’t enough to convince Wilson-Raybould that Trudeau’s view on DPAs is right. Something here doesn’t fit. Is she really that intransigent or is Trudeau waving a red-herring at us?

I need to hear more on this.

What about the veiled threats?

And what about the threatening comments Wilson-Raybould notes in her testimony, such as Wernick’s warning that the PM will get this done “one way or another” or Butts’ assertion that there is “no solution that doesn’t involve some interference”? This certainly sounds like pressure.

Possibly, but there is another way to see this. Maybe things just got out of hand. Policy debates in cabinet can get very heated and hard-hitting – sometimes very quickly. Wilson-Raybould has given us a peek inside the sausage factory and, while it may repel us, it probably doesn’t surprise us.

Most of these staffers had likely never heard of the Shawcross principle before last week and may have had little more than passing knowledge of the difference between the Attorney General and the Justice Minister. If so, much of this pressure may have been a result of over-zealousness and ignorance.

If Trudeau believes this, he should admit it – openly and honestly. It would be embarrassing, and it wouldn’t excuse the behavior, but at least it would show that these actions weren’t criminal or corrupt.

Why can’t we go to the No-Go zones?

Two final questions need answers: Why did Trudeau shuffle Wilson-Raybould to Veterans’ Affairs and why did she resign?

On her resignation, Trudeau insists his office has nothing to hide. If so, he should let Wilson-Raybould speak. Preventing this because of solicitor-client privilege, cabinet confidence, or the SNC-Lavalin court cases simply sounds evasive and like an admission of guilt.

As for moving the former AG to Veterans Affairs, suppose Trudeau did shuffle Wilson-Raybould because of her views on the DPA. It does NOT mean she was being punished. Ministers serve at the pleasure of the prime minister. Normally, when there is a deep disagreement on policy, the prime minister can use his position to resolve the issue.

In this case, the Shawcross principle prevents it. Trudeau therefore may have concluded that shuffling her out of Justice was the only way to resolve the policy crisis. It is his prerogative to make that call. If so, however, he should now explain this, and she will have to decide how she feels about that.

Is this a teachable moment?

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was pitch-perfect. She was forthright, dignified and highly credible. With Philpott now standing behind her, Trudeau must do more than refute her claims. He needs to provide a public testimony that rivals hers in clarity, completeness, and integrity.

I would include an apology to Wilson-Raybould for letting the process get out of hand, and a statement affirming that the Liberal caucus is her home and that she is welcome in it.

It would be up to her to decide whether she feels comfortable there. If so, the onus would be on her to participate in good faith.

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: 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