Note: This column has been updated.
Today the Liberal government finds itself cornered by a credible allegation, a cabinet resignation and a competence test.
In any such existential position, it is worth asking: Is it a surprise?
Tuesday’s quitting of cabinet by Jody Wilson-Raybould was surprising only in that in these circumstances it took longer than expected. Justin Trudeau’s problems are surprising only in that his test has come from within.
If Wilson-Raybould was truly subjected to undue pressure as justice minister and attorney general to scrap the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on serious charges involving its Libyan exploits and instead settle the matter, her only course of action inside cabinet was to leave.
When she did not or when she would not step forward and say the Globe and Mail has erred, she could not possibly continue. Her resignation letter to the prime minister Tuesday suggests she may yet provide her story – she has retained a former Supreme Court justice to advise on what she can and can’t say.
The consequences for the Justin Trudeau government are impossible to overstate. His performance Monday to paper over the problem looks like rank amateurism only one day later. On Tuesday he seemed to rub salt in the wound. He has lost a highly competent minister who carried iconic value politically for a government that has spoken more than it has acted on Indigenous reconciliation. He faces the electorate in October and his stock has suddenly tanked.
It may well be true that he and Wilson-Raybould spoke about the SNC-Lavalin matter last fall, as he says, and that he suggested the decision on the prosecution was “hers alone.” But the Globe report was not about the prime minister’s pressure, but about pressure from his office; he would not be the first leader to be Mr. Chuckles and a top aide as Mr. Knuckles.
He sought late Tuesday to deflect responsibility to her about blowing the whistle on political interference – repeating ad nauseam how he was “surprised and disappointed” by her departure, raising questions about her believability, and failing still to clarify whether his officials exerted undue pressure. If she needed any prodding, this will surely make her want to speak out.
The Vancouver Granville MP might have been able to ride this time out in cabinet in the lesser portfolio of veterans affairs and associate minister of defence and determine more subtly that it would be best to wind down her career detour into national politics.
But the media report set off a storm she could not withstand within cabinet. She has smartly come in from the cold and left the prime minister out on the street without warm garb.
For Trudeau, whose government has built its reputation on the back of sweeping gestures and publicity, it has only taken a credible allegation to topple the house of cards.
He may have professed a day ago that he had “complete confidence” in his minister, but it is increasingly clear she had months ago lost what confidence she had in him.
It is an axiom in politics that the initial scandal is less problematic than its handling. In this case, though, so far it’s a tie. The allegation of threatening independent prosecution is as problematic as the fumbling, semantic fog of the official explanation.
Trudeau’s father was a charming master of improvised verbal gymnastics; the son has more of a staged persona of scripted and rehearsed spontaneity. The “surprised and disappointed” shtick did nothing Tuesday to answer the critical questions. He and his team had better summon some brilliant talking points, because the country awaits an authoritative explanation of what happened, who did what, and how his government now proceeds.
He certainly needs to tell his story before the country’s ethics commissioner does so. A lingering scandal will prove fatal. This is not a junior minister or backbencher who has shamed him. This is a formidable colleague turned in short order into a possible foe, and one hopes she too can be candid and not be compelled to conceal due to cabinet confidentiality or solicitor-client privilege.
Otherwise, the Liberals have handed the Conservatives their election issue: integrity.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.