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Liberals on Ethics Committee defeat opposition parties’ motion to probe SNC-Lavalin affair

By Abbas Rana      

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith described the opposition parties' motion as ‘premature,’ as the Justice Committee is still awaiting a written submission and documents from ex-minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on the same topic.

The House Ethics Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, left, defeated an opposition motion to study the SNC-Lavalin affair on March 26. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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A week after the House Justice Committee shut down its probe of the SNC-Lavalin affair, the House Ethics Committee also defeated an opposition motion calling for it to examine the scandal that’s been hounding the government for nearly two months, and to invite former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to share more of her side of the story.

At a special meeting on March 26 during a constituency week, members of the 10-member Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee voted 6-3 not to proceed with their own probe. The Liberals have six members on the committee, the Conservatives three, and the NDP one. The committee is chaired by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer (Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, B.C.), who would have voted only in case of a tie.

The House Justice Committee shut down its own study of the scandal on March 19. But Ms. Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) has since informed the committee that she plans to provide more documentary evidence such as text messages and emails in her possession that are relevant to the study. She also plans to submit a written statement.

During the March 26 meeting, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York, Ont.), vice-chair of the committee, was the only Liberal to speak to explain why party members were opposing the motion. He said the Justice Committee is still awaiting more information from the former justice minister, and the Ethics Committee should let that process conclude before launching a new inquiry.

“To me, it makes far more sense to see what is said in that statement, to see how Justice reacts to that, and whether they think any of that new information is something worth reconsidering their previous decision to close off their study,” said Mr. Erskine-Smith.

The Ethics Committee met Tuesday afternoon to consider requests from Conservative and NDP MPs to probe the SNC-Lavalin scandal that has overshadowed the government’s agenda and has dogged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) since Feb. 7.

Liberal MP and Ethics Committee vice-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, pictured speaking to reporters after the March 26 meeting, opposed the study of the SNC-Lavalin affair, saying the committee should first wait for the Justice Committee to complete its process on the same issue. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Ms. Wilson-Raybould spoke before the Justice Committee late last month, alleging that 11 senior Liberals and government officials inappropriately pressured her to intervene to stop the prosecution of the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant that’s facing charges of fraud and corruption. At the time, Mr. Trudeau had waived the solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence restrictions on the former justice minister so she could offer her testimony related to her time as attorney general until the January cabinet shuffle when she was moved to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. This waiver did not cover the time after she was shuffled to the new portfolio on Jan. 14. Ms. Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet over the controversy on Feb. 12.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said publicly that she wants to share the rest of the story but would require a waiver from Mr. Trudeau to cover the time after the cabinet shuffle. As of deadline yesterday, the prime minister had not granted that and it appeared unlikely he would. Mr. Erskine-Smith, however, said after the committee meeting that he would be in favour of extending the waiver if Ms. Wilson-Raybould needs one to put all the relevant facts and evidence out. Other Liberal MPs, though, have said that Ms. Wilson-Raybould does not need the new waiver because if she has more information to add to what she has already shared with the Justice Committee, she could do that in the House where she has parliamentary privilege.

Mr. Trudeau, his former principal secretary Gerald Butts, and outgoing Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick—all of whom interacted with Ms. Wilson-Raybould on the SNC-Lavalin case—have categorically denied Ms. Wilson-Raybould was ever subjected to any inappropriate pressure. Still, the controversy has led to the resignation of several senior Liberals, including Mr. Butts, and Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Treasury Board president Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) from cabinet. Mr. Wernick announced he would retire from his position before the October election.

On March 21, Ms. Philpott gave an interview to Maclean’s magazine in which she said there’s “much more to the story that needs to be told” and that the prime minister should waive the cabinet confidentiality for her and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. She accused Mr. Trudeau and his senior advisers of trying to “shut down” the story.


The Hill Times

Abbas Rana

Abbas Rana is the assistant deputy editor of The Hill Times.
- arana@hilltimes.com

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