Liberal MPs are offering mixed reactions to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to bring his former principal secretary and best friend Gerald Butts back to join the Liberal campaign team, with some saying they welcome this decision and others concerned it could provide fresh oxygen to the SNC-Lavalin scandal all over again.
In an interview with The Hill Times, eight-term Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver East, Ont.) said she welcomes Mr. Butts’ return to the campaign team. She said she’s not surprised he was brought back into the fold, as he’s a smart campaign strategist who played a key role in the party’s majority victory in 2015. Prior to the last election, the Liberals were the third-place party with 34 seats, but won a majority government with 184 seats in 2015. She added that Mr. Butts resigned not because he had done anything illegal but because he was becoming the focus of media stories, which was affecting the government’s ability to do its work, and he stepped aside.
“He’s a Liberal, he was the prime minister’s chief campaign adviser when we ran in 2015. Why would you not take a person who knows how to do a campaign well and understands the mechanisms of a good campaign?” said Ms. Fry, who will be seeking her ninth term in the upcoming election campaign. “Gerry Butts didn’t do anything wrong. He stepped aside because he felt he was becoming the story during the SNC-Lavalin thing.”
Mr. Butts, who has been close friends with Prime Minister Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) going back to their university days, resigned as principal secretary in February in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin affair when he faced allegations that he and other top government officials inappropriately pressured former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to the Quebec engineering giant. Mr. Butts vehemently denied the allegations but stepped down from his position, arguing he was becoming a distraction for the government.
“I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in [the PMO] pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould,” Mr. Butts wrote in his resignation letter on Feb. 18. “But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians. My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend. It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”
After his resignation, it was expected that the controversy would subside, but it got even worse when Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet, coupled with then-treasury board president Jane Philpott’s resignation, who supported her cabinet colleague’s position that she was in fact pressured. The controversy generated even more negative media coverage when Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Mr. Butts, and then-PCO clerk Michael Wernick testified before the House Justice Committee. As a result of the damaging testimony against the government and media interviews, and the damage the scandal was causing to the governing party, Mr. Trudeau expelled Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott from the caucus, saying the trust between the two MPs and the rest of the team had been broken. The controversy also led to the resignation of Mr. Wernick.
The SNC-Lavalin scandal has turned out to be the most damaging controversy that the Trudeau Liberals have faced in their four-year mandate. This scandal hit the party hard and for months the Liberals were trailing the Conservatives by double-digit margins in the national public opinion polls. In recent weeks, the Liberals, however, have made up the lost ground and polls are now showing both parties running neck and neck.
Mr. Butts was seen as the most influential official in the Trudeau government, not only because of his close friendship with Mr. Trudeau but also because of his efforts to first help Liberals win the last election and later become the closest adviser to the prime minister.
Last month, CBC first reported that Mr. Butts was back on the campaign team and is attending strategy meetings with senior officials in preparation for the next election.
After the story came out, opposition parties blasted Mr. Trudeau for bringing Mr. Butts onto the campaign team.
“Gerald Butts is back, the Lav-scamsters are reunited, and nothing has changed,” said Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.) last month at a news conference at the National Press Theatre. “If Trudeau and Butts are returned to power, we will see more SNC-Lavalin scams. The modus operandi that we saw in this scandal will continue and it will worsen.”
Mr. Poilievre also said that this move shows that nothing has changed on the Liberal side and Mr. Trudeau has not learned any lessons from the scandal.
“When Gerald Butts took the fall and resigned in disgrace in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Trudeau was trying to tell voters, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson, I’m a changed man’,” Mr. Poilievre said. “Justin Trudeau has not changed. There will be more SNC-Lavalin scandals. And we know that because he brought back the very architect of that scandal to serve at the centre of his decision-making organization.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.) also said in a media interview that he was disappointed by this development.
“It’s disappointing,” Mr. Singh said in an interview with CTV News.
“It again just perpetuates the same fear that people had that this is a Liberal Party and a Liberal government … who are making their decisions based on very questionable priorities.”
Last week, a spokesman for the Liberal Party confirmed that Mr. Butts was helping out the Liberals for the upcoming campaign but did not say specifically what will be his role in the October election campaign.
“Gerald Butts will be helping on Liberal Party of Canada’s 2019 campaign, which will continue to be focused on our positive plan to invest in the middle class,” said Braeden Caley, senior director of communications for the Liberal Party. “We’re fortunate to have a strong team of candidates and campaign leaders who have a deep commitment to making life better for Canadians.”
He described criticism from the Conservatives as “personal attacks” and questioned why the Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) has hired Hamish Marshall, who in the past worked for the controversial right-wing publication The Rebel, to run his campaign.
“Personal attacks are nothing new from the Conservative Party, because they have no policies to help people. We’re going to stay focused on the real priorities of Canadians,” Mr. Caley wrote.
“If the Conservatives want to have a conversation about campaign teams, Canadians are still expecting them to answer for the fact that Andrew Scheer has hired a founding director of The Rebel, an extreme right-wing organization, as his national campaign director.”
Liberal MP Ken Hardie (Fleetwood-Port Kells, B.C.) also supported Mr. Butts rejoining the senior campaign team. He said he was not concerned about the opposition parties’ criticism, saying they would have talked about the SNC-Lavalin affair regardless. Mr. Hardie also said that the former principal secretary stepped aside from his position not because he had done anything inappropriate, but because the media spotlight on him was becoming a distraction for the government. Mr. Hardie described Mr. Butts as a smart strategist and said Prime Minister Trudeau trusts his advice.
“He knows what he’s doing,” said Mr. Hardie in a phone interview last week with The Hill Times. “He’s a very valued part of the group that gives the leader advice, the advice that the leader values and trusts. I’m happy to see him back. He did more than the right thing by taking the steps that he did take a few months ago.”
But another Liberal MP who spoke to The Hill Times on a not for attribution basis expressed concern that this move will give fresh oxygen to the opposition parties’ attacks on the Liberals. He said the prime minister never consulted the caucus on whether Mr. Butts should be part of the team or not. The MP said that there were three people who ran the 2015 campaign and the government after winning the election: Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Butts, and PMO chief of staff Katie Telford. The MP gave credit to the three for winning the last campaign, but disagreed with the management style of the three in running the government as it was highly centralized, and in his opinion the government did not learn any lessons after making mistakes. For the next campaign, the MP said, Mr. Trudeau thinks he can’t win without Mr. Butts. The MP said he did not know specifically what role Mr. Butts would play in the upcoming campaign, but added that regardless of the title, the former principal secretary would be the top player in the campaign.
“The whole government’s run by Trudeau, Butts, and Telford. That’s the sum total. I’ve never seen any system this big that’s so poorly managed. We’re not managed at all. I don’t even know they know we’re not well managed,” said the MP.
“He’s going to run it [campaign] with Trudeau whatever title he’s given. He takes all the oxygen in the room, if you think about it.”
A former senior ministerial staffer told The Hill Times that he supports Mr. Butts’ return to join the campaign, but conceded there are some within the party who are not happy, but won’t speak up for fear of retribution from the centre.
“He appears to be very valuable to the prime minister, but I don’t know if the decision would’ve been the same had it not been one of his best friends,” said the former staffer.
“A lot of people are scared to complain about Gerry’s arrival, to be honest. You know how the PMO is. If you complain about something, especially on this topic, I think you’ll be shunned. … A lot of people won’t say anything because it’s Gerry, and their job is on the line.”
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