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VIBERT: The messy side of realpolitik

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the old song goes, something’s gotta give.

The irresistible force in this analogy is the new Liberal brand Justin Trudeau successfully sold Canadians in 2015. It was irresistible to Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Celina Caesar-Chavannes, star candidates all, attracted by Trudeau’s pledge to “do politics differently.” All three are now estranged from his government, although the two former cabinet ministers remain incongruously in the caucus.

The immovable object is messy realpolitik, mixed with an unhealthy dose of that old Liberal establishment elixir that Trudeau-the-candidate rejected, but the prime minister has found hard to resist. That Liberal establishment had, and apparently still has, a soft spot for well-heeled and better-connected Canadian “elites” like, well, SNC-Lavalin for instance.

There is no doubt the prime minister and his closest advisors were determined to save SNC-Lavalin the trauma of a criminal prosecution. They convinced themselves this was in the national interest, and pragmatic politics — realpolitik — demanded their efforts to help the engineering giant.

They amended the Criminal Code to make it possible, and then laid on the pressure to convince then-justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to make it happen.

She famously refused, was shuffled to Veterans’ Affairs and eventually resigned from cabinet. By then word of the pressure to intervene on SNC-Lavalin’s behalf was public, and the firestorm that has engulfed the Liberal government since, was fully ignited.

This week the flames soared a little higher when Jane Philpott, who quit the Trudeau cabinet almost three weeks ago because she couldn’t support the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, told Maclean’s there’s more to this story, and it needs to be told.

She spoke with care in the interview, because she feels constrained by cabinet confidentiality, but her statements reflect the internal conflict that has created a fissure in the government and the Liberal caucus. When pressure increases, fissures become fractures.

“Of course I want a Liberal government in federal politics,” Philpott told Maclean’s. “But the Liberal party needs to be the best version of the Liberal party.”

The SNC-Lavalin affair, and more specifically the prime minister’s handling of it before and since Wilson-Raybould left justice, in Philpott’s view, does not reflect the “best version of the Liberal party.”

And she identified the dichotomy at the core of the Liberals’ internal strife.

“I do, in a sense, have two parallel messages,” she said. “One is that I’m not happy with how the SNC-Lavalin issue has been dealt with, and I’m not prepared to support how it’s being managed. But at the same time, I really strongly support the Liberal party and believe that we have the best overall policy suite for the good of Canadians.”

Prime Minister Trudeau would do well to hear and heed what Philpott was saying, because Canadians share something of Philpott’s conflicting opinions of his government. However, unlike Philpott, not many are inclined to carefully balance what they know of the SNC-Lavalin affair against the “overall policy suite” of the government.

The affair is seriously eroding Canadians’ trust in the prime minister and his government, as recent polls indicate, and the longer the controversy rages the deeper the damage will cut.

Which takes us to Philpott’s assertion that there’s much more of the SNC-Lavalin story that should be told. If that’s so, it almost certainly will be told, one way or another. It’s in the government’s interest that all is said and done as soon as possible.

“My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole story,” she said. “I believe we actually owe it to Canadians as politicians to ensure that they have the truth. They need to have confidence in the very basic constitutional principle of the independence of the justice system.”

Prime Minister Trudeau isn’t the first politician to win votes by promising to govern differently, only to be hoisted on his own petard when he’s caught doing politics the same. A deal for a powerful and influential company accused of corruption, albeit in Gaddafi’s Libya, looks to many like the politics of yore.

What makes this scandal different is that all the damage to the government is coming from friendly — or formerly friendly — fire.

Wilson-Raybould, Philpott and many of the seven million Canadians who put him in the prime minister’s office bought into Trudeau’s pledge to do politics differently, and like his former cabinet ministers, many of those Canadians are disappointed or disillusioned by the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Until, and unless, he can put it behind him and start rebuilding the brand that took the Liberals to office four years ago, Trudeau and Co. are in for a rough fall. Or maybe just a fall.

Something’s gotta give.

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