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.