‘Rule of law’ in the Trudeau era

A major scandal has hit Trudeau’s cabinet and is destroying the Liberal Party’s ‘progressive’ credentials.

Canada''s PM Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference at the BlackBerry QNX headquarters in Ottawa, Canada on February 15, 2019 [File: Reuters/Chris Watties]


Eventually, it infects, often fatally, all so-called Western “liberal” democracies. Still, some regimes fall prey to the corrosive conceit faster than others.

For Canada’s “natural governing party” – the Liberals – hubris has, arguably since Confederation in 1867, been part of its defining nature, accustomed as it has been, not only to power but, perhaps more satisfying, to wielding it.

So, when the Liberal Party prevailed yet again in the October 2015 federal election after enduring the largely powerless gulag of opposition for almost 10 years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and company regained what they considered, no doubt, their rightful place as the governors, not the governed.

Amid the giddy celebrations, there was, to be sure, the usual dollop of bromide-laced rhetoric about “transparency”, “feminism”, “equality”, and the “rule of law”, where the interests of “ordinary Canadians” would no longer be sacrificed to satiate corporate profligacy.

Only those unfamiliar with history took Trudeau’s halting, sophomoric talk seriously. The Liberal Party has always been about one thing: power.

Now Canadians have learned that translates into mostly white, male, unelected officials who make up Trudeau’s inner orbit – known as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – using their power reportedly to “pressure” the country’s first female Indigenous justice minister to let a big, powerful, scandal-plagued, Quebec-based engineering company off the criminal hook.

Everything else is trite symbolism designed to persuade the gullible of the Trudeau government’s phantom “progressive” credentials.

This is the prism through which the Canadian prime minister’s current travails, which have exposed the Liberal Party’s signature hubris and habitual preference for power over principle, must be viewed. The veil has slipped and Trudeau et al may be headed back to the gulag come the next general election in October.

The “scandal” broke in early February, when word emerged that last October, then-Justice Minister and Attorney General Jodi Wilson-Raybould was allegedly leaned on by heavies in the PMO to, in effect, lean on the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to ditch bribery and corruption charges against the construction behemoth SNC-Lavalin in connection with lucrative contracts the firm secured in Libya more than a decade ago, and strike an agreeable plea bargain instead.

It has been suggested that Wilson-Raybould wouldn’t play let’s make a deal that, by probable and happy extension, would likely shore up Liberal support in seat-rich Quebec on the eve of the upcoming vote.  

Then, curiously, the political dominoes began to fall. Wilson-Raybould lost her high-profile job and got shuffled to the more junior Veterans Affairs portfolio. She didn’t take it well.

In her own fit of garrulous hubris, she penned a 2,000-word “reflection” on her time as justice minister and attorney general, citing her stellar achievements. Such humility.

In any event, in her ode to herself, Wilson-Raybould hinted that there was something rotten in Ottawa about her demotion, writing that the attorney general enjoys “unique responsibilities to uphold the rule of law and the administration of justice [which] demands a measure of principled independence”.

“It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence. As such, it has always been my view that the Attorney General of Canada must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions, and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power. This is how I served throughout my tenure in that role.”

A few weeks later, a front-page story broke like a political thunderclap, implying that Wilson-Raybould got shunted to the minor leagues because she wouldn’t play ball with the boys in long pants at the PMO on the SNC-Lavalin “problem”. Cue the “scandal” chorus.

At first, Trudeau responded to the politically combustible allegations like a metronome, saying any allegation that he or his office “directed” Wilson-Raybould to do anything on the SNC-Lavalin file was “false”.

Meanwhile, Canada’s customarily moribund federal Ethics Commissioner stirred from his somnolence to announce a probe into the byzantine imbroglio.

Trudeau said, unconvincingly, that he welcomed the inquiry, reassuring reporters that the fact that Wilson-Raybould was still in cabinet “speak[s]for itself” – whatever that claptrap meant.

For her part, Wilson-Raybould kept mum, citing solicitor-client privilege. Then, hours after Trudeau claimed the pair were still bros on speaking terms, Wilson-Raybould quit cabinet and hired a former Supreme Court justice to advise her on what she could or could not say publicly about L’affaire SNC-Lavalin.

Trudeau tacked, insisting he was “surprised” by her sudden departure, while suggesting that Wilson-Raybould should have come to him with news about anyone close to his throne breaking sacrosanct rules around political meddling in the judicial process. “She did not,” he said.  

By then, the frothing opposition parties called on Trudeau to waive privilege so Wilson-Raybould could tell her side of the sordid story and to convene an urgent justice committee meeting to question his top aides and Wilson-Raybould.

Not surprisingly, Mr Transparency and erstwhile defender of the rule of law, said no on both scores.

Wilson-Raybould’s many allies among Canada’s Indigenous peoples have denounced Trudeau. “I’m ashamed at what the prime minister has done to my daughter. But I’m also ashamed, if these allegations prove out, what he has done to this country,” her father, Bill Wilson said. “It’s disgusting. No one should be treated this way.”

Political reporters like to build myths about the people they cover. The myth manufactured about Trudeau and his confidants is that they represent the best and the brightest.

Turns out, they’re not that bright. The elixir of power made them too comfortable; it fed their innate hubris. Now, they can only watch, impotent, as, drip by drip, their equally swaggering boss is exposed as a feminist fraud, whose “people” possibly skirt the rule of law when corporate interests demand it, who disdains transparency to protect his incumbency, who casts aside accomplished Indigenous women when it is expedient, and who shifts his story faster than a weather vane in Manitoba’s tornado-prone plains.

Discerning Canadians knew it from the first. Today, others are finally, if belatedly, catching on.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.