The true cost of SNC-Lavalin: 53 lost days

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday March 31, 2019.

Although it may feel like ancient history, and remembered about as clearly, it was just last week that Finance Minister Bill Morneau introduced the Liberal’s final, pre-election budget, a 460-page basket of goodies titled “Investing in the Middle Class.”

A government’s last budget before an election is usually its most strategic, and effective, opportunity to not only communicate its vision and priorities but to make the case for why it deserves another term in office.

Properly executed, a pre-writ budget acts as a powerful framing device for the election ahead and allows the government to springboard seamlessly from governing to campaigning. What’s more, it is an opportunity that is not available to the government’s opponents.

On the other hand, a fumbled pre-election budget can result in a nosedive, as the Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell learned with their “lame duck” budget in 1993.

Morneau and Trudeau were clearly looking forward to a springboard effect when they introduced a budget tailor-made to appeal to that favourite market of this government: the middle class and those working hard to join it. Millennial homebuyers, seniors, women, there was something targeted at everyone.

But if a finance minister rises in the house to unveil a budget and no one hears him, can it make a difference?

Well, for the Liberals, it would appear not.

Trouble began almost immediately, with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rising on a point of order to accuse the government of “an assault on democracy,” just before leading opposition MPs out of the House.

The assault on democracy was, of course, a reference to the real frame emerging around this government: the weeks-old scandal of its handling of SNC-Lavalin that the Liberals can’t seem to outrun.

The Globe and Mail broke the SNC scandal on Feb. 7 — 257 days out from the next federal election. And since then, essentially every day has brought with it the drip-drip-drip of negative news. The result? The Liberal’s proactive message machine has been rendered useless.

Today, the Liberals find themselves 204 days out from voting day and yet no closer to any resolution on SNC. And to make matters worse, their last, best opportunity to “change the channel” is now behind them.

As a crisis manager, it is clear to me that the cost of the SNC-Lavalin scandal to the Liberals has become twofold: the scandal itself as well as those 53 lost days. In crisis communications, each lost day — each lost hour — in which your message is not getting out, or in which your messages are reactively instead of proactively focused, is an hour or a day in which you are losing the message battle.

And things got materially worse for the government this week. The budget simply has no chance to compete with the release of a recorded conversation between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Michael Wernick.

The budget was a critical opportunity to turn the page, and yet two days after it was introduced, it had fallen off the front pages of the national media. In its place was a return to a regularly scheduled program of SNC revelations. By Saturday, the lead story in this newspaper’s business section was calling it a “forgettable budget.” By all accounts, that headline nailed it. The budget has already been thoroughly forgotten.

The budget did not fare much better on television, either. The day after its release, CBC’s Power and Politics covered it only notionally, before moving on to a smorgasbord of other news, including Celina Caesar-Chavannes’s resignation, Jane Philpott’s remarks that there was “more to the story” on SNC-Lavalin, and the marathon voting session underway in Parliament. CTV’s Power Play similarly skimmed the surface, while Question Perioddevoted an entire segment with the chyron, “Budget overshadowed by SNC-Lavalin.”

And although political parties can often circumvent traditional media through the skilful use of social media, the budget was, by all accounts, a flop there as well.

Between March 16 (two days prior to the budget, when hype begins) and March 24, the budget was tweeted or posted about on Facebook 31,938 times. SNC-Lavalin? 408,101 times.

And so, as the calendar counts down to election day, the news cycle has little room left for the prime minister’s message of sunny ways.

A prospect that portends stormy days ahead for the government and its message.

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