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Like sands through the hourglass, the SNC saga is leaving everyone restless

By Tim Powers      

Trying to figure out the next plot twist in this ongoing political drama would be a fool’s errand.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, may have wanted to shift focus to his last budget before the election, but the ongoing strikes from former cabinet ministers Jane Philpott, middle, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, right, keep adding fuel to the SNC-Lavalin fire. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—It really does feel like a soap opera. The “it,” of course, is the ongoing SNC-Lavalin saga and its numerous plot twists. A little more than a week ago, the Liberals brought down their last budget prior to the election. It was meant to be a scene-changer and a launch pad for new storytelling. To date, most of the budget’s program announcements have either fallen off the news agenda or are found way down story boards behind that other menacing tale.

Last week, also, an election was called in Alberta. It is being billed as the most meaningful electoral contest in generations. It has national implications, in terms of federal policy directions and broader discourse. It was called on the same day of the budget. While it has garnered some important national media attention, it still isn’t the No. 1 drama. That title is held, weeks and weeks after its initial incarnation, by SNC-Lavalin.

Recapping last week’s highlights will require more words than The Hill Times affords me, but here are a few. The Liberal members of the Justice Committee used their majority to prevent any more testimony on the matter from anyone, including Jody Wilson-Raybould. At other times, a governing party using its majority to stop something politically controversial would get a mention and a slap on the wrist, but the news agenda would not move on. Not this time.

The Conservatives, propelled by the Justice Committee outcome, executed a few parliamentary stunts of their own. They worked to delay the finance minister from introducing the budget, tried to drown him out while he spoke, and then the next day created a 30-hour voting marathon to make the point that shutting down the committee was wrong.

While some commentators chided the Conservatives for being rude in trying to drown out Bill Morneau and being gimmicky for the voting marathon, their shenanigans meant SNC-Lavalin stayed in the news. It also meant no one really knew what the official opposition thought of the budget measures introduced.

Neil Bruce, the CEO of SNC-Lavalin, did an interview last week and said he never communicated to the government that no DPA meant no future for his company, and in turn 9,000 jobs lost. This seemed to be a central tenet in all the government’s messaging. It was cast adrift by the CEO of the company the Liberals were trying to help. This week, after the damage was done, the company put out a statement to clarify that though it never “threatened” the feds with job losses, it did indeed tell the government the agreement was the best way to “protect and grow” those Canadian jobs.

Jane Philpott, the former superstar minister, jumped into the fray and told Maclean’s magazine’s Paul Wells that there was “much more” that needed to be said about the SNC-Lavalin saga. That torpedoed any of the Trudeau Liberals’ last hopes that they were free and clear of this storm.

Philpott’s comments also got tensions flaring among fellow caucus members, with some demanding enough was enough and that she and Wilson-Raybould should just go into the House of Commons and speak. Parliamentary privilege overrides all, they argued. All the while, the prime minister has some caucus discontent festering. Not what you want before an election.

Wilson-Raybould popped up again saying now she was going to provide a written report, which will apparently be made public, that provides more documentary evidence and responses to some of the statements made by other witnesses at the Justice Committee. It is hard to imagine that this will be a Hallmark card, though on Monday of this week the prime minister said he recently had a cordial conversation with former minister. It’s important to remember that after they chatted a few weeks ago, Wilson-Raybould left cabinet and, well, the rest is history. Contemplating the next plot twist would be a fool’s errand.

The one thing that may be on the government’s side is both the public and many commentators’ attention span for this story might be exhausted. Somewhere, Justin Trudeau is crossing all his fingers and toes, hoping that is the case.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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