SNC-Lavalin scandal holds fast to timeless political formula

Political scandals – usually about money, sometimes about sex – have their own laws of physics. Their pathologies rarely deviate. In the case of l’affaire SNC-Lavalin, what we are witnessing is textbook.

It starts with a corporate culture that plays to win. International misbehaviour, the price of doing business in many places, has pockmarked the Montreal-based engineering giant’s history, and its main mess today is that it allegedly bribed Libyan officials over a decade.

A scandal intersects with seeding the ground of political influence. In this case the firm illegally donated $117,000 to Liberals and Conservatives. (A since-departed executive took the fall, and his plea and $2,000 fine sweetly shielded whom it supported.)

Political influence slices dually. SNC-Lavalin is a world-class employer in Quebec and beyond; woe betides the politician who wishes anything but to worship the jewel.

Occasionally the influence yields a tasty dividend – a clever reform, even more cleverly buried within a 556-page omnibus budget bill, designed to extricate the company from its testy domestic trouble. The new procedure fixes exactly, precisely, almost exclusively SNC-Lavalin’s mess. With no parliamentary review, the bill passed along party lines last year as a routine confidence vote on the budget.

In the next physics phase, the seemingly irreversible force meets the immovable object: Jody Wilson-Raybould, then justice minister and perhaps more importantly attorney general. The veteran prosecutor pre-public life was responsible in her portfolio for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, whose unenviable job involved deciding if SNC-Lavalin would face trial or capitalize on this process for which it seemed tailor-fit.

The process can produce a remediation agreement, a get-out-of-jail-rather-free card: admit something, pay something, continue to bid for something. A conviction, on the other hand, blockades a decade of federal contracts.

The crux of the scandal, as we all know, is (a) that Justin Trudeau’s officials allegedly exerted pressure on her to remediate, not prosecute, (b) she told the gang to pound sand, (c) she was relocated to a lesser portfolio at the earliest opportunity, but (d) left a trail of bread crumbs – a beguiling note about speaking truth to power and averting political interference.

Someone – her, her confidants, a Prime Minister’s Office mole, the Russians – tattles to the Globe and Mail and all Hades breaks loose as we connect the dots and understand her note.

The physical laws of scandal follow: Trudeau denies the allegations and his team fans out to whisper what a pill Wilson-Raybould can be. That an Indigenous woman could stand up to a revered Quebec firm is the subtext of the hurled colonialist crap.

Trudeau doubles down, wonders whatever could be the matter, says his government has done nothing wrong, adds he has full confidence in Wilson-Raybould. That canard flies for about one sunset. Turns out the feeling isn’t mutual; she quits and hires a former Supreme Court justice to define her legal privilege as a solicitor with her once-client, now an adversary.

In true textbook fashion, the prime minister again doubles down, jilted and scorned, “surprised and disappointed,” placing, of all things, the blame on her – the person, after all, who tried to keep the government from the scandal of remediating SNC-Lavalin’s exploits.

Two sideshows accompany the main stage: A Liberal-heavy parliamentary committee professes deep concern and pursues a shallow investigation, and the ethics commissioner lurks as a long-shot menace. Pay no mind.

Here, then, is what the textbook says will play out, perhaps not in sequence, barring an unforeseen event:

1. A sacrifice will be necessary in the form of a high-ranking official. Just as SNC-Lavalin could claim it clobbered its corrupt cadre, so the government will say the same.

2. Problem is, the former minister is blocking the road ahead. She will get her moment to talk, and it will be exquisite and historic. She could rent BC Place and fill it faster than Paul McCartney.

3. The prime minister will blush and bear a permanent blotch. How scarring, we do not know. Scandal is dependent on vista, too, and Quebec’s is that remediation is the right thing. If Conservatives are drooling at their prospects, best to pull out the handkerchiefs. I hear there are some good manufacturers of them in Quebec.•

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.