Election 2019: Trudeau’s Ethics Mirror Harper’s

Election 2019: Trudeau’s Ethics Mirror Harper’s

As published in the Victoria Standard: 25 August, 2019

The Federal Ethics Commissioner recently concluded that Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by pressuring former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to protect SNC Lavelin. Mario Dion included this finding in a report that may seriously harm the Liberal’s re-election prospects. Conversely, it’s worth remembering that Harper won a majority government in 2011 after being found in contempt of parliament for withholding budget data. Harper’s contempt was arguably more offensive than Trudeau’s secretive efforts to protect a corporate giant.

After a lengthy damage control campaign, Trudeau has accepted the Commission’s findings and taken responsibility for violating the Act, although the only consequence for his admission is minor embarrassment and public disapproval. Unfortunately for the public interest, prime ministers will never face legal sanctions for such misconduct. Nonetheless, the prime minister defended his need to communicate with the attorney general on future matters of national interest.

Justin Trudeau and other senior Liberals sought to have Wilson-Raybould over-rule a decision taken by the director of public prosecution. Commissioner Dion concluded that Trudeau’s attempts to influence Wilson-Raybould on behalf of SNC Lavelin contravened Section 9 of the Act. This section forbids elected representatives from using their power and influence to benefit private third parties, particularly companies and individuals dealing with the federal government. Trudeau and his team received steady pressure from a team of SNC Lavelin lobbyists including numerous insiders from former administrations.

The former attorney general ultimately refused to overturn an Office of Public Prosecutions decision to pursue fraud and bribery charges against SNC Lavelin. Trudeau had sought a non-criminal agreement and fines for the engineering firm rather than criminal prosecution related to the company’s previous Libyan dealings. If convicted, SNC Lavelin would have suffered a crushing 10 year ban on federal contract bidding.

The Office of Public Prosecutions was a 2006 creation of the Harper government portrayed as an antidote to so-called Liberal scandals like the “Adscam” of 2004-2005. Under this scheme, agents of the Chretien government had been prosecuted for quietly shifting large sums of public money to Quebec advertising firms.

Officially, the independent prosecution service was designed to discourage all politicians from interfering in criminal prosecutions. Before 2006, Canadian attorney generals had enjoyed full authority to pursue or dismiss criminal cases as they saw fit. Their dual role as cabinet ministers left them vulnerable to political pressure, especially from powerful prime ministers.

Every recent Canadian prime minister has dealt gently with SNC Lavelin to protect Quebec jobs and votes. In 2013 the Harper government granted SNC Lavelin a 10-year, $400 million military services contract for Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Shortly before this deal, the World Bank had banned SNC Lavelin affiliates from bidding on the bank’s lucrative aid contracts. Obviously, Harper did not share the global banker’s ethical reservations.

The Liberals successful 2015 campaign included promises of greater accountability, transparency and accessibility. Instead, they have treated the public with the same disdain as the previous administration. Upon election in 2006, Harper further centralized power in the PMO (prime minister’s office) and tightened message discipline by forcing all MPs, Ministers and senior bureaucrats to clear all public statements with the PMO. Despite bold rhetoric, Trudeau has done little to remedy this situation.

As the federal campaign grinds on, the mainstream media hasn’t really bothered Justin Trudeau with pointed questions. Instead they seem mainly content with bland Liberal press releases and Trudeau’s general refusal to answer unscripted queries. Similarly, the Cape Breton Post recently provided Andrew Scheer with a comfortable platform for his canned rhetoric. This corporate complacency is regrettable, but may be explained by the prospect of federal media subsidies.

Canadians can’t depend solely on major media companies for detailed answers from politicians because organizations like Bell and Post Media have compromised their critical function in exchange for access to power. With a few bold exceptions, corporate journalists only serve the interests of working people when they match the demands of major media shareholders, like banks and insurance companies.

A broad survey and analysis of all public affairs coverage encourages informed citizenship by inspiring debate and critical thinking. That process takes time and considerable effort but provides a solid foundation for citizens who insist that politicians be truly accountable.