Justin Trudeau’s government goes ka-boom

A scathing report on Trudeau’s handling of a corruption inquiry shredded his credibility and chances for re-election.

Canada PM - Reuters
Canada's ethics commissioner said PM Trudeau improperly pressured a former attorney general to halt the criminal prosecution of a company August 14, 2019 [Andrej Ivanov/Reuters]

I owe Canada’s Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion an apology.

Earlier this year, I wrote a column referring to his office as “moribund,” and anticipating that Dion would likely investigate the ethics scandal then devouring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his equally powerful inner orbit of insolent advisers with the “tenacity of a chihuahua”. 

That scandal – dubbed, the SNC-Lavalin affair – had the necessary ingredients of a cause celebre that could go ka-boom: a big, Quebec-based and historically well-connected engineering and construction company; tawdry allegations of bribery to win lucrative overseas contracts, pending criminal charges; and a lone federal minister, rebuffing, again and again, the PM and his emissaries who desperately wanted the whole, potentially combustible “problem” to be buried behind an expedient legal tactic.

So, when two opposition Members of Parliament asked the Liberal government’s hand-picked ethics commissioner to probe the prickly matter, I assumed Dion would repay his patron’s, no doubt, certain faith in him by doing his best to ensure that the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio didn’t go ka-boom on the eve of a federal election that polls show is a toss-up.

I was wrong. So, Mr Dion, I apologise.

Turns out, the ethics commissioner is not a chihuahua, but a piranha. On Wednesday, Dion shredded Trudeau’s credibility, integrity and quite possibly his chances of being re-elected in October. Ka-boom, indeed.

In his scathing verdict, Dion found that Trudeau – working hand-in-glove with SNC Lavalin – had not only broken conflict of interest rules, but, in effect, the prime minister had treated the rule of law as a trivial, irritating obstacle while he and his unelected accomplices at the apex of authority in Ottawa repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) pressured former Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to make damn sure SNC-Lavalin did not face an embarrassing and possibly crippling criminal trial.

“The evidence showed there were many ways in which Mr Trudeau, either directly or through the actions of those under his direction, sought to influence the attorney general,” Dion wrote in his report. “The prime minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms Wilson-Raybould. The authority of the prime minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit … the authority of Ms Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer.”

Dion also took particular aim at Trudeau’s “troubling” role in “directing his staff to find a solution that would safeguard SNC-Lavalin’s business interests in Canada”.

“I have no doubt,” Dion concluded, “that the result of Mr Trudeau’s influence would have furthered SNC-Lavalin’s interests. The actions that sought to further these interests were improper since the actions were contrary to the constitutional principles of prosecutorial independence and the rule of law.”

I had to re-read those astonishing excerpts several times to appreciate the profound implications of their meaning. 

First, Trudeau, his office and large swaths of the Government of Canada had acted essentially as a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin.

As a result, Trudeau and company played a central role in an orchestrated campaign to: 1. Protect SNC-Lavalin’s commercial interests at all costs to “save jobs”. 2. Badger Canada’s “chief law officer” relentlessly, and, in so doing, defile the supposedly sacrosanct notions of judicial independence and constitutionally protected due process. 

And when their brazen gambit failed, Trudeau and his eager associates tried to “discredit” – a polite euphemism for smear, I suspect – Wilson-Raybould after she said no to their parochial, politically motivated entreaties.

Anyone in Canada with keen, non-partisan synapses understood all this to be apparent long before Dion delivered his damning indictment. 

But to his honourable credit, Dion methodically gathered the evidence – as best he could – and told Canadians, using plain, direct language that the prime minister who hired him had broken the law and the justice minister who refused to appease the boss on principle had done her “due diligence” in defence of the rule of law. 

In my maiden column for Al Jazeera more than three years ago, I wrote that despite starry-eyed corporate media coverage, international audiences should not be fooled by Trudeau’s youthful exuberance, telegenic charm and so-called progressive credentials.

Behind the deliberately manufactured facade, was an obdurate political operator who remained fixed to the old, corrosive ways and means of governing – domestically and internationally.

With his formidable imprimatur, Dion’s exhaustive exhumation of Trudeau’s dark modus operandi has provided, I believe, much ammunition to prove that column’s central point.

Even Trudeau’s predictable, bromide-laced response to Dion’s evisceration of him is further evidence of how he goes about recycling the same, tired responses of so many other politicians who have had their private natures and shenanigans exposed. 

“I take full responsibility. The buck stops with the prime minister,” Trudeau said. “I, obviously, take the ethics commissioner’s report very seriously. We will make sure that this never happens again under any government in this country.” 

My goodness, how many times have you heard that comical, banal pledge made by a rogue’s gallery of presidents and prime ministers?

Here’s another instructive query.

How many times have you heard sanctimonious politicians – like Trudeau – lecture the “developing world” about how “liberal” democracies like Canada are the model of probity and “good” governance that it ought to emulate?

That is, of course, a rhetorical question.

In any event, there have been the perfunctory calls for Trudeau to resign. That is not going to happen. Trudeau will not apologise, let alone step down. 

More astute observers recognise that Dion’s report should be considered another chapter in the unfolding story, not the end of it.

Canada’s top civil servant – the Clerk of the Privy Council – Ian Shugart, denied Dion access to all cabinet documents connected to Trudeau’s conduct throughout the SNC-Lavalin affair. That means the entire, sordid story has not been told.

I hope the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) stirs from its institutional somnolence to read Dion’s expose and demands in court, if need be, to see that paper trail Shugart prevented Dion from examining. That may lead Canada’s federal police – if it is inclined – to make further inquiries that could lead to some uncomfortable places for Trudeau et al. 

Still, while I mistakenly suggested that the Ethics Commissioner’s office was “moribund,” I can confidently predict the Mounties will not press to see those secret cabinet records or ask any questions that might make Trudeau et al uneasy.

I would, however, welcome the opportunity to apologise again.    

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