Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he might have acted differently in the SNC-Lavalin scandal had he known the Montreal engineering firm would ultimately negotiate a plea bargain.
It’s not that the prime minister believes he did anything wrong. He just wishes he had known how the case was going to play out so he didn’t have to interfere in it. It’s a telling statement.
"Obviously, as we look back over the past year and this issue, there are things we could have, should have, would have done differently had we known, had we known all sorts of different aspects of it," Trudeau said this week.
Trudeau, his staff, the clerk of the privy council and others from the Finance Department tried to alter the outcome of the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin. They did so by repeatedly and inappropriately pressuring then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to use her authority to overturn a decision by the prosecution branch not to negotiate a deferred prosecution with the company. Wilson-Raybould refused to interfere in the case. Instead, she quit cabinet and was eventually kicked out of the Liberal caucus by Trudeau.
By refusing to bow to Trudeau’s repeated requests, Wilson-Raybould upheld the rule of law and preserved prosecutorial independence. She did the right thing and paid a steep political price for it.
Following Wilson-Raybould’s resignation, the criminal case against SNC-Lavalin was allowed to proceed, unencumbered by political interference. SNC-Lavalin was subsequently convicted of a criminal offence. The company pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 and will pay a $280-million fine. It appears the company will not have to lay off thousands of workers, as Trudeau and SNC-Lavalin officials had predicted might happen, if convicted. In the end, the system worked the way it was supposed to, no thanks to the prime minister.
Trudeau says had he known it was going to end this way, he might have done things differently. Maybe he wouldn’t have badgered his attorney general to interfere in the case. Maybe he would have allowed the criminal justice system to do its work independently, like it’s supposed to. He denies he did anything wrong. What he’s really saying is that it’s acceptable for a prime minister and senior political staff to interfere in a criminal case if they believe they may not like the outcome.
Trudeau has offered no regrets for his attempts to interfere in the case. He’s simply saying he wished he had a crystal ball so he could have avoided taking the steps he did. Trudeau is not opposed to the principle of politicians trying to influence criminal cases. If he were, he would say so and show contrition for his actions. He has not done that. He makes no apologies for violating the rule of law and compromising the integrity of the justice system.
The outcome of the SNC-Lavalin case doesn't matter. That’s irrelevant. Whether the prosecution branch decided to negotiate a deferred prosecution or not, whether it opted to go to trial or agreed to let the company plead out, is immaterial. Those decisions are supposed to be made — and ultimately were made — independently, without influence from politicians.
The only reason that happened is because Wilson-Raybould took a stand against Trudeau. He got caught and was forced to back off.
There should always be a firewall between the legislative and executive branches of government and the prosecution. It is never acceptable for a prime minister to interfere in a criminal case, regardless of how many jobs may be at stake in the event of a conviction. Trudeau attempted to jump over that firewall. He was exposed and he paid a moderate political price for his actions. His government was demoted to minority status in the October election.
But he has learned nothing from this saga. Even now, after months of reflection, he insists he did nothing wrong.
The SNC-Lavalin case may be closed, but we still have a prime minister who believes it’s perfectly acceptable for politicians to interfere in criminal cases. That’s troubling.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
Updated on Friday, December 20, 2019 at 8:43 AM CST: Corrects reference to privy council