Last Thursday morning, Justin Trudeau spoke out on the SNC-Lavalin crisis. Anyone who tuned into the press conference expecting to hear an apology would have been disappointed. The advance billing was wrong. This was an ultimatum, not an apology – a last chance to lay down arms or face the consequences. Will it work?
To be sure, Trudeau’s tone was conciliatory. He expressed regret over the erosion of trust between his office and that of the Attorney General and promised to take steps to prevent this in the future.
But on the real issue, he didn’t give an inch. In his mind, the feud with Jody Wilson-Raybould is based on a misunderstanding and nothing more. The claim that she was subjected to pressure was not part of his script; her truth is nowhere to be found.
So, Trudeau has his story and he is not changing it. But does it rule out an apology? Not at all. His view is that people can and do understand the same situation differently. I’d add that family feuds are the worst for this.
The relationships are often so deeply intertwined that peeling back the layers to find fault – who did what to whom – quickly gets too complicated and painful to make progress.
Trying too hard leaves the underlying bonds of trust exposed and raw. Sometimes the only thing the parties can do is stop analyzing their relationship before they destroy it.
All Trudeau needed to say to Canadians is that when a family feud goes this wrong – as this one has – sharing the blame is part of finding a way forward. He could have offered an apology for his team’s part in the harm that’s been done. Everyone would have got it and his story would remain intact.
In short, an apology needn’t compromise or complicate Trudeau’s story. And as a parade of communications experts has explained, it is a critical step in solving the crisis.
It would have made it much easier for Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott to reaffirm their confidence in his leadership. And that would have made it much easier to shut down the public debate.
But Trudeau refused, and no one is sure why. The best guess is that he just doesn’t believe he has anything to apologize for. And that may be the real take-away from this speech.
It’s been a brutal month for Trudeau, losing two of his strongest cabinet ministers and his principal secretary. And the crisis may be a long way from over.
Conflicts like this can change people, especially family feuds. Everyone agrees that successful relationships rely on trust; and that those bonds can be damaged or destroyed. When they are, people tend to turn inward. Self-reliance becomes a surrogate for trust in others.
In a curious sidebar, Trudeau spoke admiringly of his father. Like Justin, Pierre entered politics with flair and charisma, but the dashing intellectual who swept to power on a wave of Trudeaumania quickly metamorphosed into a tough, aloof, and unsentimental politician.
The Justin who spoke on Thursday sounded surprisingly like him – more defiant than generous. Maybe this says something about how he views the leadership challenges that lie ahead – and the changing brand of the Liberal party.
Whatever his reasons, decisions have consequences and Trudeau’s uncompromising stance is now the party line; Liberals will be expected to toe it. The priority will be to shut down this affair, starting with caucus.
This would be easiest with Wilson-Raybould’s and Philpott’s cooperation. They don’t need to accept Trudeau’s story, but they can’t be challenging it. The minimum price of remaining in caucus now is silence. If they can’t live with that, they will have to leave or quickly be driven out.
That is the ultimatum in Trudeau’s speech.
At a speaking engagement for National Women’s Day yesterday, Philpott refused to comment on the crisis, which is a good sign. Now that she has taken her stand, maybe she feels she’s done enough.
As for Wilson-Raybould, it is hard to see why she would simply agree to remain silent. She is in very deep and will likely want some vindication of her position. She has already said she’s available to appear again before the justice committee.
On the other hand, the prime minister has signaled that if the two women want to reintegrate into caucus, he is open to this. This could be the first step in a process of reconciliation.
As things return to normal, there would be time for reflection and possibly even candor; perhaps there is even a way back into cabinet. But healing will take time and it won’t happen in the glare of the media. We’ll see what these two women decide and what other events intervene.
In the meantime, Trudeau has defined his terms. Few will call them generous, but he has decided they are fair enough – and fair enough now seems to be good enough. As Leader, that is his prerogative.
Perhaps that says a lot about the future Liberal brand.
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