Which Shoe Will Drop Next Week?

Next Tuesday will it be the new shoes or the other shoe to drop that gets most of the attention?

That’s because next Tuesday, March 19th, is both the day that Finance Minister Bill Morneau will bring down his last budget before next October’s election, and also the day that the House of Commons Justice Committee meets again on an issue that could very well determine who the winner of that election is.

The Liberals have been planning for a budget that would outline much of their platform as they head for a date with the other parties at the polls next October 21st. Now they hope the budget can do much more than that. They are hoping the plans and promises in the budget are exciting enough to change the channel away from the issue that has dominated all political discourse in Canada for the past month.

The Conservatives and the New Democrats are hoping the scheduled meeting of the Justice Committee will do just the opposite. Keep the issue alive and on the front burner, turning up more compelling testimony at committee hearings and perhaps even criminal wrongdoing that would ensnare Liberal politicians in the Prime Minister’s office and elsewhere.

That issue of course is the testimony of former Justice Minister and Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould that last fall she and her staff were inappropriately pressured by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his top advisors, and other political aides, to overrule the Public Prosecutor and negotiate a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with engineering firm SNC-Lavalin so the company could avoid prosecution on corruption and bribery charges.

Wilson-Raybould testified before the Justice Committee on February 27th. For four hours — sitting alone as a witness — she went through the material and testimony that climaxes with her losing her job as Justice Minister and Attorney-General in a cabinet shuffle at the beginning of this year, and then quitting the cabinet entirely the next month. As far as she is concerned, Wilson-Raybould says she lost the justice job because she would not bow to the pressure and agree to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

Since Wilson-Raybould testified at the end of February, the committee has also heared from Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Principal Secretary who resigned shortly after the Minister quit the Veterans Affairs Portfolio she had been shuffled to, and by Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. In fact, Wernick has testified on two separate occasions. The first time he was deemed to have been too partisan for a public servant. The second time didn’t turn out any better.

However, his encore performance triggered calls form the Opposition Parties to have Wilson-Raybould back again too. So far, the Liberals have been blocking that by using their majority membership on the committee to quickly adjourn it this week, and then scheduling a meeting next Tuesday, Budget day, behind closed doors.

“Cover-up” has been the opposition parties claim since that happened. It is still not clear whether the former Justice Minister will testify again, but the Conservatives and the New Democrats might be careful what they wish for.

Wilson-Raybould was so compelling her first time testifying, a second appearance might be anticlimactic. In her first appearance, the Liberals weren’t quite sure what to expect and the members of the Government on the committee soft balled their questions and approach to a witness that is both a woman and an indigenous Member of Parliament.

Wilson-Raybould is the worst nightmare for the Liberals, a woman and indigenous, attacking a Government whose leader Justin Trudeau says he is a feminist, and whose major objective as Prime Minister is indigenous reconciliation.

However now that it’s clear that Wilson-Raybould is out to destroy the Trudeau Government, the government is going to have to try and destroy her.  If she again appears before the Justice Committee that process will have to begin there.

Prior to bringing down a budget, Finance Ministers follow a time honoured tradition; they get a new pair of shoes and on Thursday Bill Morneau did that, sort of. Instead of a new pair of shoes he picked up a pair he already had that had been resoled at a shoe repair shop. The shoemaker who repaired them had used a government grant to retrain as someone who can repair shoes, and then set up her own business.

The Finance Minister will wear those shoes when he gets up to deliver his budget on Tuesday afternoon. He and the Government can only hope that what he has to say will ultimately have more impact than what Jody Wilson-Raybould does if she get another chance to justify, and lets the other shoe drop in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

A theory on Justin Trudeau’s lack of contrition

How different this week could have been if Gerald Butts’ testimony was a springboard and not a trial balloon.

On Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, who is among his closest friends and confidants, did exactly what was required to change the arc of the story. He established himself as a credible and personable actor with a different interpretation of the events that led to the cabinet resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Jane Philpott.

After all, as the adage goes, there are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth.

Most persuasively, Butts advanced the argument that all cabinet members have an “obligation” to inform the prime minister of concerns that rise to a level that necessitates one’s resignation.

Furthermore, “If it is a question of law and that minister is the attorney-general, the obligation to inform the prime minister is of an even higher order. And it ought to be in writing so that its significance isn’t lost.”

Butts also contrasted the volume and frequency of interactions — 10 phone calls and 10 meetings over a period of almost four months — to the hundreds of meetings he personally attended in consideration of the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline or Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement negotiations.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Butts’ testimony allowed the Liberal Party, cabinet, caucus, staffers and supporters alike, the opportunity to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in a full calendar month.

By sundown that day, the government found itself in a materially better position.

And things looked like they were going to get a lot better. The media were summoned to a most unusual daybreak news conference at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa, on Thursday.

According to so-called “well placed sources with knowledge of the prime minister’s thinking,” contrition was to be on the day’s agenda.

But that was not to be. In fact, the prime minister stopped well short of an apology. Instead, he would only acknowledge that, “there was an erosion of trust between my office, my former principal secretary and the former attorney-general.” There was no suggestion that his office had made a mistake; no suggestion he was willing to utter the words so many had waited to hear: “I’m sorry.”

His only regret? That, “situations were experienced differently.”

Whatever progress Butts had made for the government was undone. By the end of the half-hour media availability, Team Trudeau found itself stuck in the same mud in which it has been mired in since l’affaire SNC-Lavalin leapt into the national consciousness.

If such thin gruel was all that was to be on offer, why summon Canadians’ attention at all? Why not let Butts’ testimony stand on its own.

Instead of acknowledging impropriety, announcing further staffing changes, or making a decisive decision to separate the attorney-general portfolio from that of the minister of justice, there was only an astonishing display of hubris.

Even before he was elected, the criticism of Justin Trudeau was that he was all style and no substance. Whether or not you agree (and I don’t), this week’s performance did nothing to dissuade his detractors.

So why on Earth could the prime minster not bring himself to apologize? Especially given we, Canadians, apologize so frequently it has been deemed part of our national character.

The explanation may well lie, or at least be rooted, in the psycho- and physiological effects of stress that we sometimes encounter in times of crisis.

When confronting threatening or uncontrollable situations, our body’s endocrine system is programmed to produce changes in our central nervous system. It is what makes us more alert, more ready to fight or flee. It’s what elevates our heart-rate, and causes both sleeplessness, and those pesky “butterflies.”

It also influences our cognitive processing, compromises decision making, and contributes to errors in judgment. We are programmed to be reactionary, not considered. We limit the options at our disposal and revert to old habits — just when we need to do the very opposite.

I have a hunch that’s what happened in the very highest levels of our government this week.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 10, 2019) 

Upcoming budgets must have sustained funding to combat sexual violence

There has been much debate lately over what constitutes a truly feminist government.

With this in mind as the federal and provincial budget announcements approach, I hope we will see substantial support for organizations providing front line services aimed at combating sexual violence in Canada.

Last week, MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke, was at a Toronto event hosted by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and Consent Comes First, Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.

In her remarks, Burke succinctly reminded the audience that, “A hashtag doesn’t heal you.”

Awareness is an important piece of the puzzle, but so is sustainable funding to give survivors the necessary wraparound supports to heal and rebuild.

Sexual Assault Crisis Centres in Ontario are currently adapting to a drastic change in direction following the 2018 election, which resulted in a substantial decrease in their expected operational budgets. What was meant to be a 30 per cent increase in base funding was subsequently reduced to a one-time commitment of $1 million in the next fiscal year — a quarter of what was previously assured.

Funding uncertainty makes it difficult to co-ordinate and deliver adequate and needed front-line supports in an effective way. We can do better — and should, when lives are on the line.

Too many of these front-line organizations are running on shoestring budgets. If government wants to be helpful, while consultation and coordination are great, sustainable financial support is what is truly needed.

It’s essential to facilitate collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts between governments, the private sector, non-profit partners and survivors — which can be difficult within a highly polarized political environment.

The Centre to End Human Trafficking is in the process of launching a Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline aimed to provide confidential, multilingual, around-the-clock services for victims and survivors of both labour and sex trafficking. The hotline is modelled after the Polaris Project in the United States (and similar initiatives in Mexico and the U.K.). In its decade of operation, the Polaris Project has fielded more than 100,000 interactions that identified over 30,000 cases of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a complex crime taking place in urban and rural communities across Canada. It is the most vulnerable women among us who are at risk and in need of support, including those on the economic margins, newcomers, Indigenous women, youth and children.

It’s difficult to measure the true prevalence of sex trafficking in Canada. Of those reported, 95 per cent of human trafficking victims between 2009 and 2016 were women.

It’s easy to get caught in the consultation loop on these issues. The federal government has just completed a consultation in the development of their upcoming human trafficking strategy, and the provincial government in Ontario is about to embark on one of their own. One would hope that information could be shared so front-line service providers can focus on their work. Consultation for the sake of consultation is not always the best use of government resources. At some point we must act.

The federal government has a role to play, in collaboration with provincial counterparts, on the national strategy to replace the first national Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan that expired in 2017.

Municipalities can do their part too, by enacting and enforcing policies to ensure bylaw officers are properly resourced to regulate licensed and unlicensed establishments where individuals are being trafficked.

Banks and credit unions can contribute in both prevention efforts and supports available to assist survivors. Private institutions and philanthropic organizations can look for opportunities to help fill funding gaps left as the political pendulum swings.

These are issues that cross partisan lines and require true partnership between all levels of government. There is no reason for organizations working to support survivors of sexual violence to do so without funding security.

In the words of Tarana Burke, “We come to the work because we are the work.”

This International Women’s Day I offer kudos to the women and men tirelessly serving on the front lines to eliminate sexual violence and sex trafficking in Canada and ensure survivors are sufficiently supported. The services you deliver are essential — and in 2019, government funding decisions should reflect that.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 10, 2019) 

Wilson-Raybould testimony nothing if not a Roman spectacle

On Wednesday afternoon, in an event that exceeded its considerable billing, Canada’s former attorney general and minister of justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, filled in many of the contours of Bob Fife’s early-February reporting that thrust the prime minister, his closest advisers, and the Liberal Party of Canada into a political firestorm.

Her testimony was as astonishing as it was remarkable in its candour, and willingness to draw blood.

Wilson-Raybould named names and read records: phone calls, emails, text messages, and contemporaneous meeting notes. She told a story of a co-ordinated and persistent effort by the machinery of government — PMO and PCO alike — to influence her decision-making.

She vividly recalled veiled threats and potential personal consequences. Her recollection of 10 phone calls and 10 meetings contradicted Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council.

Her language conveyed, in a straightforward way, her conviction that an injustice had taken place.

And, yet when the dust settled, there remained so much more to be said.

What has the PMO not allowed the former AG to say? Why was she not released to discuss her time as minister of veteran affairs and her resignation from cabinet?

And then beyond the former minister herself, what will others have to say? How will Gerry Butts use his appearance before the Justice and Human Rights Committee to recast the government’s narrative?

What about all the other people Wilson-Raybould named?

And above all, how will l’affaire SNC-Lavalin play out in Quebec vs. ROC? Which parties’ electoral fortunes will it help? Whose will it hurt?

While we wait for answers to these, and many more questions, specific to this matter, we’d do well to think about some of the things which gave rise to this mess at first instance.

Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the opposition, asked Wilson-Raybould on Wednesday if this experience had left her with anything she thinks should be recommended to parliament.

Wilson-Raybould’s response was instructive.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” she said, “and I think this committee [should] look at the role of the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, and whether or not those two roles should be bifurcated.”

She went on to say to say that there should be consideration around “having the AG not sit around the cabinet table.”

In hindsight, it’s plainly clear she has a point.

While there are procedural and practical arguments for dividing the roles, perhaps the most important argument for doing so is the simple fact it is unreasonable to ask one person to perform two contradictory roles.

Is it not, on its face, absurd to think that one person can, one minute, be expected to act in a non-partisan way and then in literally the next minute to act as a partisan?

In our system, the minister of justice is inherently partisan: She or he is responsible for drafting partisan policy and shepherding partisan legislation through Parliament on behalf of the governing party.

The attorney general, on the other hand, is the chief law officer of the Crown, responsible for the government’s litigation and for providing legal advice regarding the very policies they have — while wearing their minister of justice “hat” — helped to draft.

In the United Kingdom, the role of the secretary of state for justice, who has oversight of the ministry of justice, is separate and distinct from the attorney general, who is the chief legal adviser to the Crown and oversees prosecutions but is not usually a member of cabinet.

And when the AG has sat in cabinet, problems have arisen. Prime Minister Blair’s AG Lord Goldsmith came to a “better view” of the legality of the Iraq War 10 days after conversations with the prime minister and his cabinet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

When Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks of the strain that she has been subject to, she refers of course to “political interference.” But she is also sounding a warning to Canadians that the burden she faced stemmed, at least in part, from a structural flaw in our political system.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 3, 2019) 

By-Election Breakdown: Who won? Who lost? And why not enough people cared

The stakes were high in last night’s three by-elections that were geared to establish a narrative of momentum going into the October national vote. These are the last wins that parties could mount as trophies on their electoral shelf.

In a unique twist, everyone eked out a win.

  • WIN: The NDP’s Leader Jagmeet Singh won a higher NDP vote percentage in Burnaby South than his predecessor in 2015, giving him a spot in the House of Commons in advance of the 2019 election and allowing him to comfortably stay on as Leader of his party;
  • WIN: The Conservatives replaced retiring Harper cabinet stalwart Peter Van Loan with Scot Davidson, which keeps a foothold for them in the vote-rich GTA on top of increasing the Conservative vote percentage from 2015;
  • WIN: The Liberals are +1 in total seats after taking the riding of Outremont, following over a decade of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair holding that seat. Liberal insider Rachel Bendayan will be the next MP for Outremont – a proof-point for Liberals in Quebec that the SNC-Lavalin Affair is playing differently there;
  • WIN: The Green Party can point to a historic result in Outremont, winning 12.5% — enough to get their financial deposit back and enough to signal momentum; and
  • WIN: The Peoples’ Party, Maxime Bernier’s new political vehicle only in its infancy, ran candidates in all three by-elections and their Burnaby South candidate Laura-Lynn Thompson won over 10% of the vote there on a socially conservative platform.

In terms of short-term momentum, this could be chalked up as a wash for all parties. However, looking further down the road, this has cemented an NDP leader for the October campaign with weak poll numbers, national fundraising results, national media presence, and personal policy branding. Prime Minister Trudeau’s team is likely optimistic if his track-record as Leader continues down this path.

Singh’s NDP Caucus colleagues will now get to spend more time with him in Ottawa, but almost 1 in 4 of them won’t be standing with him in October by running for re-election. The NDP’s future hinges on Singh showing up to Ottawa and making a strong impression during the handful of Parliamentary sitting weeks left before the summer recess, which will put all party leaders on the road.

The regional story here is one that matches what many observers have been forecasting. The Liberals may be weakening in BC while the NDP are weakening in Quebec. The small surges for the Greens and Peoples’ Party eat away at left and right-wing parties respectively, which may leave space for the Liberals in the middle to hold ground.

The arc of these by-elections was about symbolism on the national stage more than anything though and voters play into that when they are being put on a pedestal. This is why party leaders are usually gifted seats, even if it’s not their home region. Canadians would be too polite to see Singh crumble before he even got a real chance.

The Liberals spent the evening spinning a narrative that government parties don’t usually win by-elections, yet they have swung three ridings away from other parties toward their own since 2015. As by-elections are mere jolts of momentum anchored in a moment in time – this trend is perhaps not emblematic of historic levels of enthusiasm for the Liberals. These ridings mostly pivoted at key moments in time around popular candidates who had been Mayors or community leaders already.

While all parties will—and should—celebrate the wins for their members that drive donations and door knocks, there was a real loser last night.

By-elections traditionally have worse turnout than general elections, which themselves have seen steady decline over time. The 2015 election saw a brief uptick to almost 60%, but the expected trend after 2011 was set to see less than 1 in 2 Canadians vote.

Even considering poor weather in some areas, each of these by-election ridings saw only about 1 in 5 eligible people vote.

It’s a real shame that parties may be able to point to percentage gains and momentum for their side, but ultimately we are talking about only a small vote differential in ridings with populations of almost 100,000.

Now, as we turn from by-elections to the general election on October 21, 2019 – it will be key for all parties who want to win big to tap into those other 4 out of 5 to help us really see where Canadians want their country to go.

Leave families out of news coverage

The 2019 federal election year is upon us and Canadian political discourse is moving at a furious pace.

With new information regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair surfacing by the minute, journalists have been admirably vigilant in their pursuit of presenting the facts, as they are made available, to the Canadian public.

But amidst the various, thoughtful angles presented across outlets in the coverage of the federal political landscape this week, it was incredibly disappointing to see that a production team felt it appropriate to go to the family home of a former public servant — and present the cringeworthy intrusion that ensued as an exclusive interview.

In the wake of the resignation of Gerald Butts from his post as principle secretary in the office of the prime minister last Monday, a CTV reporter and photographer attempted to conduct and film a clearly unwelcome interview with his spouse, Jodi Butts, on the doorstep of her home.

The exchange was painfully uncomfortable to watch.

The reporter ignored any and all respectful social cues as Jodi Butts sternly, and somehow still politely, requested privacy out of concern for the safety of her children — a response that was remarkably patient and graceful considering the circumstances.

Many lines were crossed here — from the producers who pitched the story, to the reporter who awkwardly and inappropriately knocked on her door and filmed the exchange, to the social media writer who misleadingly positioned the video as Jodi Butts “Speaking out about her husband’s resignation from the PMO.”

Perhaps one day Jodi Butts will decide to give an exclusive interview.

It could be on her extensive and distinguished career as a lawyer, her advocacy for mental health and addictions issues, or on the highly dynamic leadership qualities she possesses on the issues she is passionate about.

I hope that if she does, it is on her own terms.

Until then, as a fellow Windsorite and friend, I support her fierce approach to protecting her family from unwarranted harassment, both online and by members of professional media.

There is a Canadian standard that must be upheld of our professionalism in political and public discourse. It starts with the balance of chasing a story while respecting the boundaries of decency.

We each play a role in shaping our culture by what we allow to happen around us. In this case, journalists, political leaders of all party stripes and citizens alike were forceful in their response to the CTV Vancouver segment.

It was widely criticized and appropriately characterized as an embarrassing ambush and disgraceful move on the part of the CTV Vancouver team involved. While it did not air on national news, the very fact that it was broadcast locally and posted across its network online is deeply concerning.

Each time a line like this is crossed, it must be called out.

Our country is richer when more diverse Canadians consider bringing their talents to roles in service to the public. The negotiation with one’s family to serve is a complex undertaking — the impacts on spouses and children can be wide ranging.

But the type of media spotlight we saw last week, on the families of current or former public servants, is never appropriate.

As I write this, the video remains on the CTV website, clipped shorter to remove the most important message that Jodi Butts articulated: her concern for the safety of her children and request for privacy.

The families of our public servants, and former public servants, deserve personal privacy. While it won’t undo what took place, CTV Vancouver owes Jodi Butts and her family a public apology for the ambush at her home, and for broadcasting the exchange that took place. The video should also be removed from the CTV website, in its entirety, sooner than later.

By all means, do your duty to the public good and chase a story from all ethical and professional angles available.

But be decent. And leave the families out of it.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

(Published in the Toronto Star Sunday, February 24, 2019)

Facebook users not yet ready to walk away despite troubles

Not all that long ago, certainly in my lifetime, Ma Bell, as she was affectionately known, was a communications powerhouse; ever-present with an absolute monopoly over our American neighbours’ telephone service.

By the 1980s the American Bell System — which spawned our very own Bell Canada — generated over $70 billion US in annual revenues and employed a million people.

That was, of course, until the United States Department of Justice brought forth an antitrust suit, which led to the dismantling of the biggest corporation in American history.

It happened once. And, watch, it just might happen again.

In the early days of the internet, connectivity was viewed as the great equalizer: Democratizing publishing, rendering geographic distance inconsequential, upending established power structures and disrupting traditional business models.

But as the internet has grown and matured, the outcome has been just the opposite. The result? A dangerously small number of corporations have come to monopolize our digital lives.

Attention is the single most important commodity in the digital economy. And the absolute titan in that regard is Facebook. After YouTube and Facebook, among the most-used platforms are WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, with 1.5 billion, 1.3 billion, and 700 million users apiece.

And guess what? All three are owned by Facebook.

So, how has Facebook — a single company — been allowed to accumulate so much of the market share?

The truth is, internet companies operate in a field that is scarcely understood by either customers or regulators. But more than that, in any match between Big Government and Big Technology, Big Tech always wins.

And so, between the novelty of the product, the ignorance of the consumer, and the absence of government regulation, a $445-billion company has been able to take deep root.

However, that era of unimpeded growth may be coming to an end. The aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election brought with it an acknowledgement that these platforms were effectively weaponized by hostile foreign powers. The unprecedented accumulation of personal data by these companies has created all manner of potential liabilities, and foreign interference in elections is only one example.

The consequence is that a new level of scrutiny has begun.

The Canadian government has announced a panel of civil servants has been deputized to watch for foreign interference during an election campaign.

The federal parliamentary committee on privacy and ethics has made 26 recommendations that would block hate speech, limit surveillance, and protect user privacy.

And, just this week, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould testified before the procedure and house affairs committee, suggesting a critical examination of the role of social media in democracies with a view “to hold[ing] the social media companies to account.”

In the U.K., a select committee of the House of Commons issued its final report on the inquiry into disinformation and fake news. Among the committee’s findings, Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated privacy and anti-competition laws.

According to the report, “big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them. The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law.”

Since the beginning, missteps were priced into Facebook’s success. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto was “move fast and break things.” Surely, that wasn’t intended to extend to the public trust.

Short of antitrust action, Facebook’s gravest threat may well be that the user — of what is ultimately an advertising business, and therefore the product — will eventually grow bored of the service or weary of scandal and walk away.

Polls tell us the public professes to be concerned about digital privacy. And yet, when Facebook announced its annual results last month, after a bruising year of drip, drip, drip revelations of questionable conduct from Cambridge Analytica to accusations of fomenting genocide in Myanmar, usership was actually up across the board, in every region of the world.

All of which, of course, asks the question: so long as users are not prepared to abandon Facebook, how much political capital will governments expend on policy prescriptions to regulate it?

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 24, 2019)

Two Issues that will affect Election 2019

It is not always the case, but this week Parliament Hill in Ottawa showcased two of the issues that might determine the outcome of the federal election on October 21st.

One of the issues played out in the temporary ten year home of the House of Commons in the West Block next door to the Peace Tower. And perhaps fittingly, the other played out on the street in front of all of the Parliament Buildings in a noisy protest.

Inside the Commons Chamber and adjacent committee rooms, the drama surrounding former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, was all anyone could talk about. The allegations are that she was inappropriately pressured by people in the Prime Minister’s Office‎ to change her mind and grant a deferred prosecution agreement to engineering giant SNC Lavalin. The firm is charged with breaking Canadian law by paying bribes to officials in Libya to get business there‎.

Outside the Parliament Buildings was a noisy one hundred and fifty truck protest that originated in Alberta and then drove across a significant portion of Canada to demonstrate against what it says is the Trudeau Government’s lack of commitment to build pipelines and lift the sagging western Canadian economy.‎ At the center of the ‘unite we roll’ complaint is a series of never ending delays to build a second Trans Mountain pipeline adjacent the one currently operating.

Meanwhile, in the Commons Chamber, the cabinet room and the Liberal caucus room, the Wilson-Raybould saga played out. The former Justice Minister, who was demoted earlier this year to Veterans Affairs Minister, quit the cabinet earlier this month. This past week she moved among MPs and reporters almost ghost like, saying that “solicitor client privilege” limited her ability to comment. However she told the House of Commons, she hopes in the near future she would be able to publicly discuss “my truth.”

Unluckily for the protesters and their trucks, the Wilson-Raybould saga deprived them of most of Ottawa’s attention. Even the Conservative MPs who represent most of the protesters ridings, did little to raise the issue. Smelling Liberal blood in the water, the Conservative leadership concentrated all of their fire on the Wilson-Raybould affair instead.

At the heart of that issue is the continued viability of SNC Lavalin. If convicted of the criminal charges, the firm which is based in Quebec but with employees and pensioners across Canada, would be barred from competing for Canadian government contracts for ten years. The company says that would put it out of business, and to prevent that SNC Lavalin has been seeking a deferred prosecution agreement which could see it pay multi-million dollars in penalties but escape the conviction and the prohibition on competing for contracts.

So far, the most dramatic appearance before the Commons Justice Committee which is investigating Wilson-Raybould’s charges has been from the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and the country’s top civil servant. Michael Wernick told the committee that while the Prime Minister and people around him – including himself – had spoken to Wilson-Raybould about a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC Lavalin‎, none of the conversations constituted “undue pressure.”

Ultimately, this dispute is likely to come down to how you define “undue pressure.” If one can be allowed a guess, it will probably break down along party lines, Liberals and government supporters will agree what happened was a legitimate discussion of an important issue, Conservatives and the other opposition parties will see it Wilson-Raybould’s way.

As for the truck protesters, just after they left Ottawa they had some good news. The National Energy Board issued a new ruling that would let the twining of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline from Alberta across British Columbia to the West Coast‎ proceed. But no sooner was the announcement made than in British Columbia, Indigenous groups, environmentalists and other opponents of Trans-Mountain were announcing their continued opposition.

So while the Wilson-Raybould issue is likely to end up as a difference of opinion, that isn’t the case for Trans-Mountain. The pipeline will be the focus of continuing protests up to and through the election campaign. The only thing different is that it will not be the supporters demonstrating, but the opponents.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Why SNC-Lavalin deserves to avoid prosecution

This week has shown the Canadian public is resolved in its belief that politicians and public servants must, at first instance, be up to no good.

Take the so-called scandal around the SNC-Lavalin matter, and the emerging consensus that the government has misbehaved from the get-go.

I don’t believe this to be true. I think that an important and strong public policy case can be made for the use of remediation agreements — better known as a deferred prosecution agreements or DPAs.

The DPA is a legislative tool, long available in the United States and Britain, to be used when an organization is charged with an economic crime and where the consequences of proceeding with the prosecution could cause major job loss, harm pensioners, or even trigger an economic downturn on a national or international scale.

The DPA is entered into as an alternative to prosecution and typically forces the company to pay hefty fines and comply with strict conditions over an extended period of time.

In the United States, DPAs became a favoured tool following the investigation and subsequent collapse of auditing giant Arthur Andersen. The prevailing narrative is that the company’s criminal indictment served as a “corporate death sentence” that caused the loss of 75,000 jobs and had a ripple effect throughout the U.S. economy.

The DPA is no peace bond for a run-of-the-mill petty thief. The decision is an extraordinary one, requiring the delicate balancing of the legal, social, and economic impacts of forcing a trial and, potentially, a conviction against a company that provides jobs, benefits and pensions to thousands.

In the case of SNC-Lavalin, Canada faces the very real threat that one of its top companies and employers will move, sell, or disappear if they are subject to a conviction. At the very least, they would be forced to shed a significant number of jobs as a result of their long-term disqualification from public sector infrastructure projects.

And yet, in the deepest depths of the 2018 budget bill, the government opted to hand these fateful decisions to some poor federal prosecutor. And that was the mistake.

The question must be asked: Is this a decision that a prosecutor — and a prosecutor alone — should make? Is it sensible to expect a group of government lawyers, acting alone, to credibly assess the collateral impacts of pushing ahead with a prosecution?

Looking back, and yes, political hindsight is most certainly 20/20, the devilish details of last year’s budget bill have made all the difference. By placing these super-charged decisions on the shoulders of the ill-equipped federal prosecution service, it was a near-certainty that this day would come.

The government, of course, did itself no favours when it introduced this policy on page 555 of an impossible-to-digest budget omnibus bill, but sketchy parliamentary tricks should have no place in evaluating the effectiveness of the legislative tool itself.

In the U.S., it is apparent that executive decision-makers typically play a more direct and upfront role in the negotiation of such agreements. That was the case in 2012, when then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed to have his Justice Department enter a DPA with U.K.-based HSBC to resolve fraud charges.

The settlement avoided a prosecution, which experts advised Holder would have had a profoundly negative impact on the national, and potentially the global, economy. As part of the process, Holder received input and advice from the likes of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Our “made-in-Canada” approach does not allow for executive-level participation in this way. That, too, is a mistake, and where we have missed the mark. Arguably, it is the reason we are currently embroiled in a full-blown national political storm.

This is not to suggest that these decisions should be political ones, alone, driven by partisan considerations, alone. But surely we can all agree that the decision to place thousands of Canadian jobs in jeopardy requires a nuanced view of enterprise-wide jeopardy and should not be bound by a slavish adherence to the principle of prosecutorial independence.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt. While not currently engaged by SNC-Lavalin, Watt’s firm has advised the company in the past.

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 17, 2019)

Don’t forget MP Paul Dewar’s message of inclusiveness

With Paul Dewar’s way-too-soon death, on Wednesday evening, Canadians lost a giant. A gentle, principled, passionate giant. A giant who dedicated his very life to the service of others.

There will be no shortage of epithets for Paul, but he would likely choose to be remembered for his honest and authentic engagement with his constituents, and for his commitment to their priorities; a commitment that never once wavered.

He will also be remembered as that rarest of parliamentarians: one who, while holding firm to his beliefs and loyalty to his party, set an example of civility and multi-partisan co-operation.

Many a Sunday, for example, I would hear from him about this column.

Dewar’s political career was forged in the long shadow of his mother, Marion Dewar, who served as Mayor of Ottawa from 1978 to 1985. Marion led Project 4000, which saw the establishment across Canada of over 7,000 private sponsorship groups for refugees of the Vietnam War. Her initiative influenced the federal government to increase Canada’s refugee acceptance quota from 8,000 to 60,000.

Paul often spoke of how his mother shaped his view of politics, so it is unsurprising that Dewar’s career was marked by a commitment to social activism and a belief in the potential of politics as a force for good.

After graduating from Queen’s University, Paul taught Ottawa students with special needs, and then worked as an organizer for the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation.

In 2006, he ran as the NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre, and was elected to the House of Commons. His colleagues always commented on Dewar’s commitment to his constituency, noting that he would attend community meetings even when they did not directly pertain to his responsibilities.

He had a collegial working relationship with his provincial counterpart, Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, another instance of his pragmatism over party.

In his role as foreign affairs critic, Dewar was a loud voice for social justice around the world, and a champion for human rights. He pushed the Harper government to denounce nations with homophobic agendas, as in the cases of Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation, and Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Dewar also criticized the downsizing of Canada’s role as peacekeeper, which he saw as crucial to our country’s engagement with the international community.

At the time of his appointment as critic, foreign affairs discourse in the House was dominated by John Baird and Bob Rae. It is a testament to Dewar’s graciousness and decency as a politician that he established strong working relationships with both men.

It is not often that a friendship of this kind develops between a minister and a critic. And yet, Minister Baird made a point of inviting Dewar to travel with him to the Middle East. The two also worked together on issues facing their neighbouring Ottawa ridings.

When Paul found out, in 2018, that his cancer was terminal, he did not retreat into his own problems. Instead, he devoted himself to Youth Action Now, an initiative that supports and provides funding for youth-led initiatives. Thanks to his work, a new generation will be introduced to the principles which drew him to public service.

In November, Dewar accepted the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year Lifetime Achievement award, and in his acceptance speech he struck a tone of collaboration. Speaking to the assembled politicians and journalists, he asked the crowd to remember the moment that first drew them to political work. He then asked them to turn to their neighbours and spend two minutes sharing their initial aspirations and ideas of what can be accomplished through public service.

“Is it not time,” he asked, “to take off the armour of our political party and work together as people representing citizens to build a better country for everyone?”

Paul’s message has never been truer than it is today. As we reflected when George H.W. Bush died earlier this year, there is no limit to what we can accomplish when we put differences aside and work together.

We could offer Paul no better final mitzvah, as our Jewish friends would say, than to heed this lesson as we go into the next election.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 10, 2019)