The Clerk of the Privy Council emerged Thursday from the shadows of the federal bureaucracy he leads to spend more than 90 minutes setting out the clearest account yet of how Jody Wilson-Raybould, while she was attorney general and justice minister, was subjected to all kinds of incredible pressure as she considered how to handle a criminal court case involving a Montreal engineering giant that employs more than 9,000 people.
The testimony Michael Wernick gave to the House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights was, at times, hysterical, absurd, fascinating, boastful, undeniably partisan and most welcome for finally putting some facts on the record where, until now, there had been only so many anonymous whispers.
It began oddly. We learned in the first few minutes of his testimony that “someone’s going to be shot” this election year, a gut feeling Wernick has apparently because of recent inappropriate political discourse. Without naming him, Wernick singled out Senator David Tkachuk, a Conservative from Saskatchewan, who said something inarguably stupid on Parliament Hill this week to a group of protestors, some of whom had juvenile signs accusing the prime minister of treason.
“I worry about my country right now,” Wernick began. “I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like treason and traitor in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassination.”
We can all agree with Wernick that such language is loathsome but it is hardly new and neither is the threat of violence against our politicians or political institutions. We all remember how, in 2014, a gunman entered the halls of Parliament to hunt politicians. And in 2012, we watched in horror as a gunman opened fire at the Montreal victory party of about-to-become premier Pauline Marois, killing a lighting technician.
In any event, Wernick was invited Thursday to testify about alleged interference in the decisions of an attorney general not to provide a security assessment of our federal electoral process. It was unprofessional at best, hysterical at worst.
But there would be plenty more moments when this head of the non-partisan, independent civil service would act like a partisan stung that his heroes were not getting the deference he felt they deserved.
“I am deeply hurt on behalf of Minister [Carolyn] Bennett that her reputation had been trolled over the last little while,” Wernick offered at one point, unprompted. “There is no Canadian who has worked harder on Indigenous reconciliation than the honourable Carolyn Bennett.”
Can you imagine any deputy minister anywhere saying such a thing before a parliamentary committee about a government politician? If you can’t — if it would not be appropriate for, say, the deputy minister of finance to sing the praises of the minister of national defence, then surely it is not appropriate for the Clerk of the Privy Council to say such a thing. Wernick was setting a terrible example for the independent civil service he leads.
The partisan would then veer to the absurd.
“I’ve worked very, very closely, for three years, on almost a daily basis with the current government, the current cabinet and the current Prime Minister’s Office,” Wernick said. “In my observation, in my experience, they have always, always conducted themselves to the highest standards of integrity.”
Whoa, sunshine, back up just a bit there.
Justin Trudeau is the first and only prime minister in our history to have been found to have broken a federal law while in office and that law was an ethics law. How’s that for “highest standards of integrity”?
Moreover, the current ethics investigation into this whole Wilson-Raybould matter is the fifth ethics investigation of a Trudeau cabinet member since 2015. Now this fifth investigation may come to nothing, but, so far, the office of the ethics commissioner is four-for-four in finding ethics violations.
Later, Wernick got quizzed about the cabinet shuffle that saw Wilson-Raybould moved out of justice, a shuffle provoked by the surprise departure of Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison as Treasury Board president.
“The problem that was presented to the prime minister is to replace the Treasury Board President, maintain the Nova Scotia person in cabinet and maintain gender balance. Those were the deliberations that took place in the first week of January,” Wernick said. Those deliberations included one other imperative. “Solve that problem with the fewest moves possible.”
Well, that’s easy. All the PM needed to do was swear in veteran MP Rodger Cuzner of Cape Breton as Treasury Board President. If not an old veteran like Cuzner, why not swear in a smart, young up-and-coming star like Central Nova’s Sean Fraser, currently impressing all in the House of Commons as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment.
Nova Scotia for Nova Scotian. Man for man. Problem solved!
Instead, the prime minister shuffled three ministers, created a brand new cabinet portfolio and elevated two backbenchers to the privy council. And created a suite of new political problems for himself in the process. What kind of Clerk of the Privy Council gives his prime minister such advice for such a simple problem? And what kind of clerk would try to insinuate that the solution to the problem of Brison’s exit was, inveitably, a change in justice ministers?
But for all the bizarro qualities of Wernick’s testimony, he provided some tremendously helpful details on the central issue: was there inappropriate pressure on the solicitor general? If so, how did that pressure manifest itself?
We have it on the record now that, on Sept. 17, Wilson-Raybould did, in fact, meet with Trudeau and Wernick, two weeks after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had decided SNC-Lavalin would be ineligible for a remediation agreement as part of a deferred prosecution agreement, thus putting in jeopardy SNC-Lavalin’s access to billions of dollars in federal government contracts.
The more important part of the agenda of the Sept. 17 meeting was to discuss a stalled process to establish an indigenous rights recognition framework. Wilson-Raybould, a former Assembly of First Nations regional chief for B.C., and Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, were at loggerheads. Trudeau was worried his reconciliation agenda would stall because of this impasse and the meeting was part of a plan to move things forward.
But at that meeting, Wilson-Raybould told the PM of the DPP’s decision; that Wilson-Raybould agreed with that assessment; and that Wilson-Raybould had no intention of exercising her lawful discretion to force the DPP to enter into a remediation agreement that could preserve SNC-Lavalin’s access to billions in federal government contracts.
Then, on Dec. 18, Wernick said, “there were some conversations” between unnamed PMO staff and Jessica Prince, then serving was Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff, about the SNC-Lavalin court case.
The opposition members of the Justice Committee, it should be noted here, wish to have Prince and key PMO staff members Gerald Butts (the just-resigned principal secretary) and Katie Telford (Trudeau’s chief of staff) testify about that meeting and other matters but that request was blocked by the Liberal majority on the justice committee.
Wernick told the justice committee on Thursday that while he was aware of this Dec. 18 meeting, he could not say what was discussed as he was not there.
Then, the next day, on Dec. 19, Wernick and Wilson-Raybould sat down to talk more about her decision not to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin court case.
“I conveyed to her that a lot of her colleagues and the prime minister were quite anxious about what they were hearing and reading in the business press about the future of the company, the options that were being openly discussed in the business press about the company moving or closing. I can tell you, with complete assurance, that my view of those conversations is that they were within the boundaries of what’s lawful and appropriate,” he said.
In other words: of course, pressure was brought to bear on Wilson-Raybould. No one is denying that.
“There’s pressure to get it right on every decision, to approve, to not approve, to act, to not act. I am quite sure the minister felt pressure to get it right. Part of my conversation with her on December 19th was conveying context that here were a lot of people worried about what would happen, the consequences — not for her — the consequences for the [SNC-Lavalin] workers in the communities and the suppliers.”
Those are the facts, according to Wernick. And his conclusion?
“There was no inappropriate pressure put on the minister at any time.”
Of course, Wilson-Raybould may have something else entirely to say about that conclusion. Indeed, Wernick said he expects her to take a different view and told the committee that he was, frankly, surprised that she has so far gagged herself in this matter by claiming to be bound by “solicitor-client” privilege.
“I do not see where the former attorney general (Wilson-Raybould) was a solicitor,” Wernick said, offered up with the caveat that he is no lawyer, just someone with long experience in governance. “The matter was never discussed at cabinet, never. So she was not giving advice to cabinet. She was not advising the prime minister. The prime minister said at every occasion verbally and in writing, she was the decider. She was not giving legal advice to the prime minister,” Wernick said.
“She was the decider, the full and final decider. She can’t be the fettered solicitor and battered decider in that horrible, vile cartoon, at the same time. It’s one or the other.”
One hopes the MPs on the justice committee mark all this testimony from this voluble clerk for playback to Wilson-Raybould when she is in front of the justice committee next week.
David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.
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