The SNC-Lavalin controversy, which has already caused the resignations of four top Liberal and government officials, is likely to result in either the expulsion or the voluntary resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the caucus in the coming days, say Liberals.
In interviews with The Hill Times, several Liberal MPs, Hill staffers, and political insiders said the relationship between the two former cabinet ministers, and the leadership along with a majority of the caucus has reached the “tipping point” where it’s “untenable” that both could still stay in the caucus. They predicted that either Ms. Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.), and Ms. Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) would be expelled from the caucus, or they will resign from caucus, like Ontario Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes (Whitby, Ont.) did two weeks ago.
Liberal MPs and other veteran Liberals based their prediction on last week’s damaging evidence against the government that the former justice minister submitted to the committee, as well as the March 20 Ontario and British Columbia caucus meetings, and the events that have transpired since early February when the story about top government officials pressuring Ms. Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution was first reported by The Globe and Mail. The SNC-Lavalin scandal has overshadowed the entire government agenda and recent public opinion polls are showing that the Liberal support and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) approval ratings are tanking, which means if an election were held today, a significant number of Liberal MPs would lose their seats.
According to an Ipsos poll that was released Thursday, March 28, the federal Conservatives were leading the pack with 40 per cent support nationally, compared to the Liberals who had the support of 30 per cent, and the NDP support was at 20 per cent. The online poll of 1,002 Canadians was conducted between March 25 and March 27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
“If you look at the polls, they’re putting me out of work [as an MP],” one Liberal MP said. “They’re [Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott] clearly not working for the same objectives I’m working for [good governance and re-election in October].”
Liberal MPs hold the two former cabinet ministers, especially Ms. Wilson-Raybould, directly responsible for the Liberal slide in the polls, and their frustrations boiled over in the March 20 regional Ontario and B.C. caucus meetings. Both however have categorically denied since the controversy started that they’re working against their colleagues or trying to hurt their party. Ms. Caesar-Chavannes is not seeking re-election, but Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott have said both inside and outside the caucus that they believe in the Liberal government’s agenda and are planning on seeking re-election in the upcoming election. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s plans about running in the next election, however, are a bit nuanced.
“Currently, as has been publicly reported, I intend to stand for re-election as the Liberal candidate for the 2019 election,” she wrote in a letter to her constituents on March 14.
The Hill Times reached out to Ms. Wilson-Raybould to get a clarification on her statement about running in the next election, whether she had any plans to leave the caucus on her own, or if she thinks she will be dropped from the national caucus. In an email, she said she had no “further comment at this time.”
Ms. Philpott was “away” last week, and was not available for a comment for this article. But, she told Maclean’s magazine last month that her colleagues may think that by resigning from cabinet and taking a stand against the handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, she’s “attacking” or hurting her colleagues or the government. She said she had two “parallel messages” for Canadians and her caucus colleagues.
“One is that I’m not happy with how the SNC-Lavalin issue has been dealt with, and I’m not prepared to support how it’s being managed,” Ms. Philpott, the former Treasury Board president, told Maclean’s two weeks ago. “But at the same time, I really strongly support the Liberal Party and believe that we have the best overall policy suite for the good of Canadians. So I was really hesitant to talk to you because it will be perceived by my colleagues as some kind of attack. I have not yet figured out how I can reconcile the fact that it is wrong for me to stay silent on this, but somehow I have to hope that people, my colleagues in particular, can believe what is probably hard for them to believe: that I’m not trying to damage our party or our government.”
Meanwhile, in what some described as an “unprecedented” Ontario caucus meeting, held before the national caucus meeting two weeks ago, a significant number of Liberal MPs blasted Ms. Philpott and Ms. Caesar-Chavannes and accused both of undermining the leader, the government, and the party’s electoral prospects in the next election. Sources said Liberal MPs used “very strong language” in their criticism, and it appeared Ms. Philpott and Ms. Caesar-Chavannes did not expect the onslaught from her colleagues.
“You are hurting me [as an MP], you are hurting us [the Liberal Party],” was the general message from MPs to Ms. Philpott, according to a second Liberal MP. At the start of the meeting, Ms. Philpott made brief remarks to the caucus and said they should expect “more” information to come out about the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. Ontario MPs demanded to know what information she was referring to, and asked her to share it with them at that time, or share it in the House, but she did not. Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps, who is also now a columnist for The Hill Times, wrote in her column this week that Ms. Philpott also took notes during the meeting, but was stopped by other MPs who said anything discussed in the caucus cannot be recorded.
Sources said MPs told Ms. Philpott that like her, they’re also ethical people trying to do a good job for their constituents, but now because of her and the former Justice minister’s stand on the SNC-Lavalin controversy, they could lose their jobs and would not be able to complete the work they’re trying to do.
After the Ontario caucus, Ms. Philpott did not go to the national caucus meeting. Ms. Caesar-Chavannes did attend part of the national caucus meeting, and before Question Period the same day, informed the PMO she was leaving the caucus and would complete the remainder of her term as an Independent MP. Before her resignation from the Liberal caucus, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes had said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that Prime Minister Trudeau had yelled at her when she informed him she was not running in the next election. She said she yelled back at him, and Mr. Trudeau apologized to her.
The federal Liberals hold 77 of the 121 Ontario seats in the House. The federal Liberals hold 18 of the 41 seats in B.C.
In the British Columbia regional caucus meeting the same day, Liberal sources told The Hill Times, Ms. Wilson-Raybould also received grilling from her colleagues. Liberal MPs accused the former minister of directly or indirectly leaking the information to the media, and hurting the party by her resignation from the cabinet, her testimony in the committee, and publicly airing her differences with the leadership on the SNC-Lavalin affair. Throughout the meeting, she took notes and at the end of the meeting, in response to the objections, denied that she leaked any information to the media. She said that she was a member of the party and believes in the Liberal agenda. Ms. Wilson-Raybould denied she had any control over the information that came out against the government. Even during her brief remarks to defend herself, some MPs “interrupted” her saying she was “wrong” when she denied the suspicions that her colleagues had raised against her during the meeting.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould attended part of the two hour weekly national caucus meeting, but neither the Ontario caucus members nor B.C. caucus members or anyone else raised this subject there. But, some Liberals told The Hill Times last week, they won’t be surprised if caucus members raised the issue in the next national meeting of whether both former ministers should be part of the Liberal fold anymore or not.
“I will not be surprised if some caucus members say [this week or after that] we want to have a conversation about their [Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould] continuance [in the caucus],” said the MP in an interview with The Hill Times.
Other Liberal MPs and political insiders said the situation has reached to a point where both former ministers will be expelled from the caucus, or the two would resign on their own volition as members of the Liberal caucus.
“I think they will resign,” said a third Liberal MP.
“Just put yourself in our situation and you will understand how we feel about this whole situation.”
A former senior Liberal agreed with the prediction of the Liberal MPs and added that with all this going on, Mr. Trudeau is looking “weak” and it appears he’s not in charge. He also criticized the two MPs’ role in the controversy, saying given the way things are going, the party will lose the upcoming election.
“The danger right now is that Trudeau is looking like he’s not in charge, tail is kind of wagging the dog,” said the source.
“You’re on the team when it suits you but you are not when you want to run rogue.”
Other former senior Liberals and former ministerial staffers said that expelling the two MPs from caucus is not an easy choice for the leadership, but considering the Ontario and B.C. caucus reaction, now it appears that’s the only option left.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Liberal caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.) declined to say what feedback is he getting from his colleagues on whether the two MPs should remain part of the caucus or not. He also declined to say what process the caucus will use should they decide to drop these MPs from the Liberal fold.
“As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing to report,” when asked about the potential expulsion of the two MPs from the Liberal caucus.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet shortly after The Globe and Mail reported in early February that the former minister had allegedly been pressured by the prime minister and senior PMO and PCO officials to allow SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec engineering firm, to get a remediation agreement to avoid the criminal prosecution on fraud and bribery charges.
In her appearance at the Justice Committee last month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified she was pressured by 11 senior Liberal government officials, including the Clerk of Privy Council Office Michael Wernick, and top staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office, and in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s (Toronto Centre, Ont.) office to step in for a plea deal. She said that for four months last fall, she experienced “consistent and sustained” pressure on this file and received “veiled threats” about being shuffled to a different portfolio and about potential political consequences for the provincial and federal party in Quebec. Ms. Wilson-Raybould also said she believes she was moved out of Justice to Veterans Affairs in the January cabinet shuffle because she declined to grant a remediation deal to SNC-Lavalin, which Mr. Trudeau denies.
For this appearance, Prime Minister Trudeau had waived the solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidence restrictions on Ms. Wilson-Raybould so she could offer her testimony related to her time as attorney general until the January cabinet shuffle when she was demoted to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. This waiver did not cover the time after she was moved to her new portfolio on Jan. 14. Since then, the former attorney general has said publicly she wants to put on the record the remainder of the story, but would need a waiver from the prime minister to cover the time after the cabinet shuffle. As of last week, the prime minister had not given the waiver and it appeared highly unlikely he would. The Justice Committee, where like other committees, Liberals hold a majority, shut down the study of the SNC-Lavalin affair probe last month.
The Ethics Committee opposition MPs tried to initiate a study of the controversy in their committee last week, but the motion was defeated because the Liberals hold a majority in that committee as well.
To bolster her testimony and her side of the story, Ms. Wilson-Raybould also provided some text messages, an audio recording, emails and a written statement last week to the Justice Committee. After translating all the documents, the Committee released the information late Friday afternoon. The recorded conversation revealed that the former Justice minister was concerned that if she intervened in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, it would be perceived as “political interference.” She also said several times during the conversation that she was trying to “protect the prime minister.”
After the release of the evidence the former justice minister had submitted, Liberal MPs and political insiders said now they had little doubt left that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott would be kicked out of the caucus. They said they’re concerned the SNC-Lavalin affair is becoming a serious problem for the party that could seriously damage the Liberals in the next election. They also said they now wonder how many more surreptitiously recorded conversations she has, and said that concern will affect the long-term working relationships of elected officials, staff and public servants who would now be careful and be suspicious that another person may be recording them. In her submission, Ms. Wilson-Raybould acknowledged her decision to record the Dec. 19 phone conversation with Mr. Wernick to be “extraordinary” and “inappropriate,” but said she did this “as a personal aide memoire because I had no staff present to make notes.”
“This is something that I have never done before this phone call and have not done since.” said Ms. Wilson-Raybould in her statement.
Through his lawyer, Mr. Wernick released a statement, Friday evening, saying he never got a chance to brief Prime Minister Trudeau about his conversation with Ms. Wilson-Raybould because of the Christmas holidays and that in the new year, he was busy preparing for the cabinet shuffle because then-Treasury Board president Scott Brison had informed the PMO about his plans to resign from cabinet and not to seek re-election. And former PMO principal secretary Gerald Butts announced on Twitter that after reviewing the former justice minister’s submission, he also has submitted some text messages and notes to the House Justice Committee.
Ms. Philpott resigned from cabinet last month, saying she too had lost confidence in how the Trudeau cabinet had handled the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Ms. Philpott, in her interview with Maclean’s magazine said the prime minister should waive the cabinet confidentiality for her and the former Justice minister as there is “much more to the story that needs to be told.” She alleged that the prime minister and his top aides are trying to “shut down” the story.
“My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole story,” said Ms. Philpott. “I believe we actually owe it to Canadians as politicians to ensure that they have the truth. They need to have confidence in the very basic constitutional principle of the independence of the justice system.”
Since the controversy first became public, it has led to the resignation of several senior Liberals, including Mr. Butts, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, and Ms. Philpott from cabinet. Mr. Wernick has announced he’s retiring this month.
Meanwhile, The Canadian Press and CTV reported last week that the differences between Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Wilson-Raybould started to develop in 2017 over the former Justice minister’s recommendation of Manitoba Judge Glenn Joyal to the Supreme Court as chief Justice, which Mr. Trudeau ignored. The prime minister did not accept this recommendation on the grounds that he deemed Mr. Joyal, an Indigenous Canadian, to be too conservative on progressive issues such as LGBTQ rights. The next day, The Globe and Mail ran a story saying the former minister made the recommendation to place a judge with progressive views on individual and community rights on the top court, and to pave the way for him to be the first Indigenous chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
On Friday morning, The Toronto Star reported that the former Justice minister received legal advice from the department that it would be an unprecedented move if she interfered in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. The advice, however, mentioned that she could seek a second opinion from someone outside the department as to whether she should provide a remediation agreement to the company. But, Ms. Wilson-Raybould stuck with her decision not to intervene and not to seek an outside second opinion.
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