PM Justin Trudeau Admits Electoral Concerns Are Primary in SNC-Lavalin Interference

Dimitri Lascaris and Yves Engler discusses PM Justin Trudeau’s claim that his interest in the case was to save jobs. Lascaris says that the jobs are not lost – they would simply move to other companies.

PM Justin Trudeau Admits Electoral Concerns Are Primary in SNC-Lavalin Interference

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday tried to explain why his office intervened in a criminal prosecution involving SNC-Lavalin that his former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was pursuing.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: What has become clear through the various testimonies over the past months, there was an erosion of trust between my office, and specifically my former principal secretary, and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General. The context is a tough one, with potential job losses in the thousands. These are the types of situations that make governing a challenge.

The matter of the loss of thousands of jobs, the concern around pensioners, the concerns around the Canadian economy are very real things that every government needs to preoccupy itself with, separate from, in addition to, any electoral concerns.

SHARMINI PERIES: On to discuss all of this with me is Dimitri Lascaris and Yves Engler. Dimitri is a lawyer and journalist. Dimitri is a leading class action lawyer–I should say he was–and before leaving his practice, Dimitri pursued a $1 billion securities fraud class action case against SNC-Lavalin. And Yves Engler is a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini.

YVES ENGLER: Thank you.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s, before we jump into all of this, let’s listen to the former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould at her hearing on February 27, making it very clear what the Prime Minister had said to her.

SPEAKER: It started in September. She says the first person to cross the line was the Prime Minister.

JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD: At that point the Prime Minister jumped in, stressing that there is an election in Quebec, and that, quote, “I am an MP in Quebec, the member for Papineau.”

SPEAKER: It was the September 17 meeting the Prime Minister has referenced before. Trudeau says he used it to reassure Wilson-Raybould that she would make the final call on SNC-Lavalin. She views it differently.

JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD: I was quite taken aback. My response–and I vividly remember this, as well–was to ask the Prime Minister a direct question while looking him in the eye. I asked, quote: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the Attorney General? I would strongly advise against it,” end quote. The Prime Minister said, “No, no, no. We just need to find a solution.”

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri. Let me have you respond to Prime Minister Trudeau’s defense of all of this, and of course, the Justice Minister Raybould’s allegations here.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I don’t think that Justin Trudeau, in that opening clip that you played, has contradicted what Ms. Wilson-Raybould said. What he said was, you know, I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but it is legitimate for a government to be concerned about jobs and pensioners–and these are the key words–he then said “in addition to electoral concerns.” So it seems as though he has not, as far as I know, just point blank denied that he and his aides did not raise electoral concerns in their discussions, in his discussions and their discussions, with the former Justice Minister.

I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent when you add this all up that in fact that’s precisely what they did. They did raise electoral concerns, and they’re trying to deflect attention away from that by talking about jobs. This has been the mantra of the Liberal government ever since this scandal erupted. And by the way, it’s a mantra that Liberal and Conservative governments have used for many years to pursue neoliberal policies. It’s not a genuine concern about jobs. They have other interests, not ones that are particularly important to the Canadian public, that they want to pursue, including their own electoral ambitions.

But let’s talk for a second about this whole notion that jobs are at stake. In Canada, SNC-Lavalin employs approximately 9,000 people. Now, that is, across the nation, a drop in the bucket for a job market that consists of tens of millions of people. But moreover, these public contracts–let’s let’s just bear in mind a common sense proposition. If SNC-Lavalin is not awarded the public contract, somebody else is going to get that contract. The jobs are just going to end up being transferred from SNC-Lavalin to somebody else, some other corporation or some other business entity. They’re not going to evaporate into thin air. The contract is still going to be tendered out. There’s still going to be work done. There’s still going to be people who will need to be employed in order to get the work done. And moreover, the idea that a company which has, as Elizabeth May pointed out in the hearing yesterday, that has $15 billion of back orders, $15 billion of back orders, is going to eliminate thousands of jobs if it is for a period of 10 years barred from public contracts is implausible, to say the least.

So I think that this whole, this whole mantra that we’re hearing about this is all about job protection and pensioners is nothing but a smokescreen for the fact that ultimately what the liberals were trying to do was to maximize their electoral prospects, particularly in Quebec, where there are some very powerful people associated with SNC-Lavalin who are supporters of the Liberal Party.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Yves, let me get your reaction to all of this, as well.

YVES ENGLER: Yeah, I mean, this is a question of power. SNC-Lavalin is a very powerful corporation. It’s not a question of jobs. It’s a question of power, and maybe a question of profits. SNC-Lavalin has shown itself, the fact that it was able to win this deferred prosecution agreement after a multi-year lobbying campaign, shows that it has incredible influence within Ottawa.

But that’s something that’s been pretty clear to anybody paying attention to SNC-Lavalin in recent years. It’s one of the most influential companies with regards to Canadian foreign policy. It’s been tied into Canadian aid money, the Canadian military, going back more than half a century. It has the support of Canadian diplomats abroad. It has the support of Canadian Commercial Corporation abroad, Export Development Canada, Canadian Trade Commission. It’s continued to have that support despite being found guilty of corruption abroad, and having allegations of it being corrupt, having paid bribes in about 15 different countries.

And so to me what this whole scandal shows is just the incredible power that corporate Canada has within Ottawa. And SNC specifically, this is a very powerful corporation in determining Canada’s whole relationship to the rest of the world.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let’s listen to Trudeau being questioned after his press conference this morning; one by the Globe and Mail, and the other questioner–is not yet clear to us who that was. But let’s listen to those two clips back to back.

GLOBE AND MAIL REPORTER: Did your aides say it’s all right to have a good justice policy, but we have to get elected? Did your aides talk about Quebec politics and your re-election in the context of a criminal prosecution?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: There were detailed conversations on a broad range of things that were discussed and laid bare in the various testimonies that we that we heard over the past weeks. What I can tell you is my team, and everyone in this government, always remains focused on how we make sure that we’re protecting jobs and building a better future for Canadians.

SPEAKER: Minister Wilson-Raybould says that she told you on September 17 that she had made her decision. After that, you told your staff continue to work on the file. Why would you ask them to continue to work on it if she told you she’d already made up her mind?

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Part of the terms of the DPA indicates that that decision can be taken by the Attorney General up until the very last minute of a trial. So we considered that she was still open to hearing different arguments and different approaches on what her decision could be. As we now learned through this testimony, that was not the case. But like I said, there was an erosion of trust, a lack of communications, to me and to my office about her state of mind on this. And that is certainly something that I’m having to reflect on as a leader and that I’m looking forward to improving on as we go forward.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Dimitri, let me get your reaction to those two clips.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: The first thing I would say, Sharmini, is that clearly what we’ve heard from Justin Trudeau again in this scandal is a nondenial denial. He has not–he was presented with an opportunity to explicitly confirm that neither he nor his staff raised electoral concerns in their conversations, their communications with the former justice minister and her chief of staff. He declined the opportunity. And this is consistent with what he said in the first clip you played, where he mentioned electoral concerns as one of a litany of items that he said were the kinds of things that have to preoccupy government. So I think when you look at the totality of the evidence we can safely infer that electoral concerns were very likely raised in conversations with the former justice minister, and perhaps her chief of staff, as well.

The other thing I want to address is this idea–and this is not something simply which Justin Trudeau asserted in the clip you played, but it’s also something that his former principal secretary Gerald Butts raised in his testimony–this notion that the justice minister under the statute, the former justice minister, had the freedom, legally speaking, to change her mind right up until a verdict was entered in the criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin.

Well, that’s really a red herring. The issue here is not whether she was legally entitled to change her mind. The issue here is whether she had, in fact, made up her mind. And her testimony is that she told the Prime Minister this herself in September of 2018; that she was done. She had considered the issue. She had decided that this was not an appropriate case for this extraordinarily corrupt company to receive a deferred prosecution agreement. And despite having communicated that to people within the highest levels of the government, she continued for a period of months to be subjected to intense pressure to give this company basically a slap on the wrist in what is quite probably the worst corporate corruption scandal in Canadian history.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Yves, what is riveting about all of this is how much SNC-Lavalin can flex its muscle all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Your thoughts?

YVES ENGLER: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think–it seems pretty clear to me that the Liberal government, Trudeau government, was willing to go a long way to defend SNC-Lavalin. The fact they brought in the deferred prosecution agreement suggests that, and clearly the pressure they were putting on the former Attorney General suggested.

I but I do, I think that it is important to look at this scandal in a broader light. OK. SNC-Lavalin is accused of paying bribes in Libya, and is in the process of a court battle, is about to begin prosecution. And it is able to force or to pressure the Liberal government to bring in a way around the worst possible outcome for them of that prosecution, which is to not–to have this deferred prosecution agreement, which would allow them to continue receiving government contracts.

But if you look at the past few years of the SNC-Lavalin and all these stories of its corruption abroad coming out, it’s amazing how few individuals have had any consequence. So the board of SNC-Lavalin, amidst all this corruption, the chairman of the board, Gwyn Morgan, founder of Encana. He continued to write a column in the Report on Business section of the Globe and Mail in the years after all this corruption scandal coming out of SNC-Lavalin bribing officials around the world. Another board member, Hugh Segal, another member of the Order of Canada, continueed to be a member of the Order of Canada, and then was given the Order of Ontario. A number of other board members–one then goes from the SNC board to become the head of a Canadian national railway.

So this, the story of SNC Lavalin, is they’re paying bribes around the world, and they continue to have all this power over politicians. There’s almost no one held accountable. It’s just an indication of how the power of corporations, and how the whole political system, is oriented around benefiting corporations. And no matter what these companies are found to be engaged in, both domestically–I mean, SNC-Lavalin here in Quebec is paying bribes, as well–or internationally. They continue to receive support of the whole political world. Or the media world, as well. And I think that that’s really the, that’s the big picture that we need to keep in mind when looking at the scandal.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right thank you for that, Yves. Dimitri, much of this is being framed in the Canadian media as to whether the Liberals are going to survive this scandal. And you know, apparently the polls are showing a 9 percent decline in terms of Trudeau’s leadership and favorability. So do you think this is going to stick?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well I think to a degree it’s going to depend on two factors. It’s going to depend on what additional information comes out and how other people within the Cabinet respond to the information that has emerged, that will emerge in the future. He’s lost to two high-profile members of the cabinet, both of whom are women. He’s staked much of his legitimacy, his appeal, on the claim that he is a feminist prime minister. But two, as I say, high-profile women ministers, female ministers in the Cabinet, have resigned having cited a loss of confidence. So if anybody else were to depart the Cabinet at this stage, I think that that would potentially be a devastating blow to Justin Trudeau. And so he needs to keep–he needs to ensure that the ones who remain are united behind him.

And, you know, I think also if we get additional testimony which undermines what we’ve heard thus far, and if the media begins to draw attention to some very pertinent facts which are being lost in sort of the personality, you know, the emphasis on personalities, and the whole narrative about whether this is a he said-she said sorts of thing, then the public might become sufficiently moved by this to make his electoral prospects grim, to say the least. And one factor which has been, you know, not, I think, discussed enough in the media in this country, in the mainstream media, is the legislation itself. The legislation itself contains a section which says that if a corporation has committed an offense under the Corporate Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, then the prosecutor must not consider, must not consider, the national economic interest. How you can reconcile that, that provision of the statute, which was promulgated under Justin Trudeau’s government with the claim that this was all motivated by concern for jobs, is beyond me. I think if the public begins to focus on how flawed the explanation is, and how inconsistent it appears to be with the very legislation that they are relying upon, then I think that this will be potentially devastating to the Liberals’ electoral prospects.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I’ll go to Yves for the final word, here. Do you think Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are going to survive this scandal?

YVES ENGLER: Well, it’s no doubt it’s hurt them, it’s damaged them. I do think that much of their electoral prospects are based around winning Quebec, and the weakness of the NDP in Quebec. So it is definitely possible that the Liberals will sweep Quebec, and I don’t think that this scandal has as much traction in Quebec as it does elsewhere. Because the truth is is that SNC-Lavalin is has a whole history of being, you know, a symbol of francophone Quebeckers having success, businesswise, at a time for a period of recent history where Francophone Quebeckers were marginalized and oppressed. So it won’t have as much traction in Quebec, but there’s no doubt it’s hurt Trudeau’s brand. But it’s unfortunately, it’s the–at the current moment it looks like the main beneficiary of that will be an even more pro-corporate Conservative Party. And you know, I don’t think the situation would have been all that much different if the Conservative Party would be in power now, because I think if you look at SNC-Lavalin, they’re very good at having relationships with conservative politicians, as well. But I think there’s no doubt that this is going to hurt Justin Trudeau, or has hurt Justin Trudeau.

SHARMINI PERIES: And to the point that you made, Dimitri, earlier, about how this might damage the relations with the Indigenous Aboriginal community in Canada, as well as the two feminist ministers resigning over this. Justin Trudeau is quite aware of that, because in the press conference he actually said that, you know, following this press conference he is visiting an Indigenous community, and that the government is very interested in pursuing resolving issues with the Indigenous people in Canada. And then also he made it a point to say that he’s back in Toronto on March 8 for International Women’s Day, where he’ll be meeting with a number of young women to hear their concerns.

And so I guess we’ll leave it there for now. Dimitri, Yves, I thank you so much for joining us today.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini.

YVES ENGLER: Thanks for having us.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.