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Re-election calculus, base politics key reasons for Liberals to seek DPA for SNC-Lavalin: political analysts

By Abbas Rana      

The Trudeau government’s motivation to help out SNC-Lavalin is to protect jobs, not any strategy for the federal election, says Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux.

Attorney General David Lametti, pictured on Feb. 21, 2019, arriving at the House Justice and Human Rights Committee meeting where he testified as a witness on the Jody Wilson-Raybould SNC-Lavalin affair. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Even after sustaining a serious political hit as a result of the most damaging scandal in his four-year mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are still not ruling out the controversial possibility of offering a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin because the 78 electoral seats in Quebec are critical to the Liberals’ re-election strategy, say political strategists.

“Quebec continues to be an important ‎battleground for the Liberals as it so far appears to be the only place they can counterbalance potential losses in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and B.C. with gains,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of Angus-Reid Institute, in an interview with The Hill Times last week.

Since the SNC-Lavalin controversy first became public when The Globe and Mail broke the story on Feb. 7, the federal Liberals have taken a serious hit to their popularity nationally. A number of public opinion polls in recent weeks have indicated a slide in the Liberals’ popularity. The polls have also shown that Prime Minister Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) personal brand has been damaged.

For instance, in a poll conducted by Angus Reid last month, 37 per cent of Canadians indicated their support for the Conservative Party, 28 per cent for the Liberal Party, 17 per cent for the NDP, and eight per cent for the Green Party. The Angus Reid poll, which was released on March 28, also revealed that 44 per cent of Canadians had a favourable view of Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), compared to 39 per cent for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.), and 36 per cent for Mr. Trudeau. The online poll of 5,807 Canadians was conducted from March 11-25, and had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

According to a Léger poll released on March 21, the Conservatives were leading the pack with 37 per cent support, followed by the Liberals with 31 per cent, the NDP 14 per cent, and the Green Party with 10 per cent. The online poll of 1,513 Canadians was conducted between March 19 and March 20, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

According to the weekly rolling tracking poll by Nanos Research, released last week, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberals were tied in a statistical dead heat with the Conservatives with 33 per cent and 35 per cent support, respectively. The NDP had the support of 17 per cent of Canadians and the Greens 10 per cent. Three months ago when the SNC-Lavalin had not been public, the Trudeau Liberals were five points ahead of the Conservatives. On the question of who Canadians preferred as prime minister, 30.7 per cent indicated Mr. Trudeau, 27.2 per cent Mr. Scheer, and 8.4 per cent indicated their preference for Mr. Singh.

Justice Minister David Lametti represents the LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, Que., riding in Montreal for the Liberals. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

In the 338-member House, Quebec represents about a quarter of all the electoral seats with 78, and the second highest after Ontario, which is home to 121 ridings. British Columbia has 42, Alberta 34, Atlantic Canada 32, and Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories each have one seat. In the last election, the Liberals won a majority government with 184 seats, the Conservatives 99, the NDP 44 seats, the Bloc Québécois 10, and the Green Party won one seat. To form a majority government, the winning political party needs 170 seats.

In Quebec, the Liberals won 40 of the 78 seats, the NDP 16, the Conservatives 12, and Bloc Québécois 10 seats.

In not-for-attribution based interviews, Liberal insiders have been saying for months that any seats they lose elsewhere in Canada will have to be made up in Quebec.

Even now when Liberals have been getting hammered day in and day out by the opposition parties on the SNC-Lavalin affair for more than two months, the Liberals have been enjoying a double-digit lead over the second place Conservatives in Quebec, according to Nanos weekly tracking.

In Mr. Nanos’ poll, last week, the Liberals had the support of 33.1 per cent of Quebecers, the Conservatives 18.4 per cent, the Bloc 16.8 per cent, the NDP 15.6 per cent, and the Green Party 9.4 per cent.

The SNC-Lavalin controversy centres around former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) explosive public statements that the prime minister and senior PMO officials pressured her to inappropriately intervene in the prosecution process to get an out of court settlement for the Montreal based engineering and construction giant.

The company is facing criminal charges on fraud and corruption and, if convicted, it could be barred from bidding on federal contracts for up to 10 years, which could mean the loss of thousands of jobs.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said she refused to intervene in the company’s prosecution because she felt it would be inappropriate for her to do so, as she’s a strong believer in the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law. She has said publicly that the director of public prosecutions Kathleen Roussel has decided against granting a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin, and based on her reasoning, she said she did not feel it’s appropriate for her to intervene.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould also said she believes she was demoted to the veterans affairs portfolio in the January cabinet shuffle because she refused to interfere in the company’s prosecution.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Treasury Board President Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) both resigned from cabinet because they said they lost confidence in how the prime minister and cabinet had handled the whole affair. Prime Minister Trudeau expelled both MPs from the national Liberal caucus two weeks ago after more than a month of behind-the-scenes negotiations to keep them in the caucus. Former PMO principal secretary Gerald Butts also resigned from his top post over the controversy and PCO Clerk Michael Wernick will leave his post on April 19.

Mr. Trudeau and other senior Liberal and government officials have denied they ever pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

Since the controversy started to make headlines in early February, the former justice minister and the leadership have unveiled evidence publicly to prove their sides of the story, including a surreptitious recording by Ms. Wilson-Raybould of a conversation with Mr. Wernick late last year, in which he said she was on a “collision” course with Mr. Trudeau, who wanted a plea agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

After Ms. Wilson-Raybould publicly provided the recording to the Justice Committee, which was later made public, a number of Liberal MPs said in media interviews that she should be expelled from the caucus for secretly recording the conversation and then making it public. The former justice minister however has said that it’s more important to focus on the content and not how it was recorded.

One of the most important arguments that top government officials made to push Ms. Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case was the potential losses of thousands of jobs for Canadians, and that the country could move its headquarters outside of Canada.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould said senior Liberals, including PMO adviser Mathieu Bouchard, told her and her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, that those losses would hamper the Liberals’ electoral prospects in the province in the upcoming election. Ms. Wilson Raybould said in the testimony before the House Justice Committee that Mr. Bouchard told Ms. Prince in October: “We can have the best policy in the world, but we need to be re-elected.”

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux says the only reason Trudeau government tried to help out SNC-Lavalin is to protect jobs of thousands of Canadians. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

A former senior Liberal told The Hill Times the whole SNC-Lavalin scandal is chiefly about “base politics” and the upcoming federal election. He said if Mr. Trudeau had not tried to get a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin, then in case of job losses, people would have raised questions why he did not do anything. Now whether the company gets a plea deal or not, Mr. Trudeau can say he did his best.

“It’s all about base politics,” said the former senior Liberal. “Quebecers would have asked him ‘What did you do for SNC-Lavalin when thousands of people needed your help?’ If the sitting prime minister cannot save jobs in his own city, why do we need that person, why should we vote for you?”

Even with the controversy rocking the Liberals, the Trudeau government has stated that a DPA to the Quebec-based engineering and construction firm facing fraud and bribery charges is still an option. Justice Minister David Lametti (LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, Que.) is still in the process of making a final decision whether a deferred prosecution agreement should be offered to SNC-Lavalin.

Based on research conducted by The Canadian Press, only a handful of rival companies of SNC Lavalin or its subsidiaries in Britain and the U.S. have received deferred prosecution agreements.

Pollster Christian Bourque of polling company Léger told The Hill Times that prior to the SNC-Lavalin controversy became public, the Liberals were expected to win a minority or a majority government. But, now, he said, it’s also possible the Conservatives could win a minority or a majority government.

“Now we definitely have four very viable scenarios: Conservative minority or majority are now possible, or Liberal majority or minority,” said Mr. Bourque, executive vice-president and partner of Léger.

He said there are six more months left before the next election and it’s still possible the Liberals could recover from this slump. Mr. Bourque however said he was not sure if re-election was the key motivation for the senior Liberals to aggressively pursue a DPA for SNC-Lavalin. He said job losses in any region of the country is troublesome for any prime minister. Mr. Bourque said whenever there’re mass job losses, all governments try their best to do what they can to prevent that.

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research agreed.

“Any government that believed that 9,000 jobs were at risk whether in Quebec or Ontario or any other part of the country, any government would take that seriously, not just for the region but for the country,” said Mr. Nanos, chief data scientist of Nanos Research.

Three-term Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.) said in an interview with The Hill Times that the Trudeau government has been working hard from day one to ensure that more and more Canadians find top quality jobs. He said whenever there’s a prospect that any region of the country could lose jobs, the government tries to do its best to help prevent that from happening. Mr. Lamoureux denied that winning more seats in Quebec is one of the reasons why the Liberals don’t rule out the possibility of getting a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

“People can read all sorts of crap into what has taken place,” said Mr. Lamoureux, who is also parliamentary secretary to Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.). “At the end of the day, if it was in Winnipeg North, or, whatever riding it is, jobs matter, jobs are important.”

The Hill Times 

Abbas Rana

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

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