Smith pushes luck by meddling in prosecutions
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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is not the first Canadian politician to try to head off prosecution of friends and supporters, and she probably won’t be the last. She is, however, running the risk that this latest gaffe will add to public impatience with her quixotic, rudderless style of government.
Alberta voters will decide May 29 whether to keep Ms. Smith in office or elect New Democratic leader Rachel Notley instead. A December opinion survey suggested the NDP leader was slightly ahead. Many former supporters of the ruling United Conservative Party, however, were still making up their minds about Ms. Smith.
Ms. Smith said publicly in December and January that she had spoken to Crown attorneys about prosecutions of anti-vaccine protesters who had blocked a Canada-U.S. border crossing last February. She had reminded them that prosecutions should proceed only if they are in the public interest and would probably result in conviction.
She has since said she never spoke to prosecutors, but only to the provincial justice minister and deputy minister, and that her language may have been imprecise. It seems abundantly clear, however, she is still pandering to the anti-vaccine faction that blocked highways a year ago. That same faction elected her to lead the UCP, allowing her to become premier last October.
Political interference with prosecutions was widely discussed in Canada in 2019 after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. She later explained she had refused repeated attempts by Mr. Trudeau to stop her department from prosecuting the SNC-Lavalin engineering and construction company for lavishing bribes on its Libyan government clients.
She (Alberta Premier Danielle Smith) has since said she never spoke to prosecutors, but only to the provincial justice minister and deputy minister, and that her language may have been imprecise.
Mr. Trudeau contended he had merely tried to make sure his justice minister knew all the facts about the disastrous results a prosecution would produce. This was his attempt to conceal bullying within a cloak of bafflegab. The federal government’s ethics commissioner found Mr. Trudeau had contravened the Conflict of Interest Act by improperly pressuring his justice minister.
In the October 2019 general election, Mr. Trudeau and his party lost votes and parliamentary seats compared to the 2015 election results, but still held power in a Parliament of minorities. Mr. Trudeau therefore suffered an adverse ethical verdict and a slight subsequent loss of political authority.
On balance, it might be said he got away with it. The electorate kept him in power despite the SNC-Lavalin scandal because the opposition Conservatives seemed unprepared for government. Mr. Trudeau’s re-election granted him a form of political absolution.
Such episodes shake public confidence in the justice system. Astonishing failures to prosecute — such as Manitoba’s failure to prosecute fashion mogul Peter Nygard while other Canadian and U.S. authorities are proceeding against him — leave the public wondering what pressures may have been applied.
Supporters of ruling political parties often suppose their party loyalty entitles them to a sympathetic hearing when they ask to be spared from prosecution. Crown attorneys therefore need special protection to insulate them from the demands of their political masters’ friends.
Ms. Smith, who is learning the art of government on the job, should make it plain to her anti-vaccine followers that they will get no special dispensation from her. The laws of Canada and Alberta will apply to them the same as they apply to everyone else.
She may yet get away with it, just as Mr. Trudeau did, but she should not push her luck.