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ANALYSIS: Despite protests from top Trudeau aide, Wilson-Raybould was right — SNC-Lavalin is about politics, not jobs

Global News logo Global News 2019-03-07 David Akin
a man wearing a suit and tie: Gerald Butts arrives to testify to the House of Commons justice committee. © Patrick Doyle/Reuters Gerald Butts arrives to testify to the House of Commons justice committee.

When Jody Wilson-Raybould was standing firm in her position that she would not overrule an independent prosecutor to cut a special deal with SNC-Lavalin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle all argued she should seek outside counsel, get a second opinion.

“Someone like Beverley McLachlan,” Gerald Butts told the House of Commons Justice Committee Wednesday. Butts, the former principal secretary to Trudeau and one of his best friends for 30 years, was a ‘rebuttal witness’ to testimony Wilson-Raybould gave last week.

On Wednesday, he told the justice committee over and over and over again that he and the others who were pressing Wilson-Raybould were motivated by one thing — the imminent loss of 9,000 jobs if SNC-Lavalin should be found guilty at a criminal trial in of what amounts to fraud and bribery.

“It was, and is, the attorney general's decision to make,” Butts said (Wilson-Raybould was then attorney general and justice minister but resigned from cabinet last month.). “It would, however, be Canadians' decision to live with — specifically, the 9,000-plus people who could lose their jobs, as well as the many thousands more who work on the company's supply chain.”

Butts denied any inappropriate pressure had been brought to bear on Wilson-Raybould.

"When 9,000 people's jobs are at stake it is a public policy problem,” Butts said. It was "an issue that could cost a minimum of 9,000 jobs."

Butts reminded the committee again what was at stake.

"We did what those 9,000 people would have every right to expect of their prime minister."

Then later: “What we needed to do in order to look people in the eye who stood to lose their jobs was to make sure we had a good reason and to build process around that, and the absolutely bare minimum was to get the best advice you can when a decision affects that many people."

Also watch: Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs react to Butts' testimony on SNC-Lavalin (Provided by The Canadian Press)

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And that’s why they needed someone like a Beverley McLachlan, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

But it’s a mystery, still unexplained despite nearly five hours of new testimony Wednesday from Butts and Wernick, why they thought McLachlan could help turn Wilson-Raybould around.

It sounds like they needed someone who could hammer home the point to Wilson-Raybould that 9,000 jobs were about to disappear, vanishing into the tundra without a trace.

You don’t need a Supreme Court chief justice for that. You need someone who knows Bay Street, Wall Street, trading floors, deal-makers, financiers. Tundra, even. But definitely not jurists.

Why not call, say, former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge? Or former Bay Street chief economist Don Drummond? Or, even better, why not Larry Fink? Fink, who has met with Trudeau more than a few times and must be on the PMO speed-dial list by now, is the chairman of New York-based Blackrock Inc., which became the world’s largest manager of financial assets precisely because it knows how to profit off the very kind of public infrastructure projects that SNC-Lavalin designs and builds.

That would be a trio of outside experts from whom you could “get the best advice you can when a decision affects that many people.” Nine thousand people. Or, as Butts testified: “A minimum of 9,000 jobs."

But here’s the thing.

The government that likes to tell you it’s all about ‘evidence-based policy’ has no evidence that “a minimum of 9,000 jobs” were hanging in the balance. They’ve just been spitballing that number.

“Did you seek independent evidence or any evidence that there was a threat to jobs?” Green Party MP Elizabeth May asked Butts Wednesday. “Based on the 2018 audited financial statements of SNC-Lavalin, they currently have $15 billion in back orders.” She’s right. "They have a very secure financial situation with gross revenues of $10 billion.” She’s right again.

"Is there any evidence that jobs were actually at stake by letting this go through the courts?” May asked Butts.

“I can’t recall anything specific,” Butts replied. He mumbled something about some briefings he got from the folks at the federal department of finance. These finance officials would be the same gang, one assumes, that once advised the Trudeau government it would be a good idea to raise taxes on small business owners like farmers, dentists, doctors, insurance brokers and so on because they were, after all, tax cheats. Once bitten, twice shy, I’d say, about any advice I got from the federal finance department.

In any event, Butts could not point to a single report, document, statistic, prognostication, or written record where someone said “a minimum of 9,000 jobs” was out the window if Wilson-Raybould did not do as encouraged.

A few hours later, May put the same question to Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council.

“In preparing advice to cabinet, what work did you do to assess the threat to jobs? Did you look at the commitments [SNC-Lavalin] made to the government of Quebec not to move headquarters, as mentioned?” May was right again. It is right there in the agreement SNC-Lavalin made to get a $1.5-billion loan from the  Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which manages more than $300-billion of Quebec public sector pension funds. To get that loan from the Caisse, SNC-Lavalin committed it would not move its corporate headquarters out of Montreal until at least 2024.

May continued her questioning of Wernick.

"Did you look at the current financial status of SNC-Lavalin? Did you in fact have an independent assessment of whether there would be any impact on jobs?"

Wernick’s answer: "No, because the file was entirely in the carriage of the minister of justice."

I fired off an e-mail Wednesday morning to the PMO, Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office, and the office of Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to ask if they had any such report. The PMO press team did not respond, while the communications  people with Morneau and Bains promised to look into it. Haven’t heard back from any them.

And so, as we’ve done so often in this SNC-Lavalin story, we turn to some excellent and comprehensive reporting from The Globe and Mail, published last weekend by two veteran Globe business journalists who examined the likelihood of SNC-Lavalin disappearing from Canada and taking with it 9,000 jobs. The conclusion of their research? Highly unlikely if not close to impossible.

First, the work SNC-Lavalin is doing has to be done by someone. Governments need the airports, bridges, and transit systems that SNC-Lavalin is building and if the 9,000 people SNC-Lavalin employs in Canada to do that work were not getting their paycheques from SNC-Lavalin, they’d be getting paycheques from someone else to do that work because that work still has to be done.

Second, SNC-Lavalin has made some shrewd acquisitions and investments over the last few years and its corporate structure is such that even if SNC-Lavalin’s corporate entities in Canada were found guilty and were banned for a decade from getting access to billions in federal government contracts, it’s more than possible, Bay Street analysts believe, that some of the international units that SNC-Lavalin has recently acquired could still bid and likely receive Canadian federal government contracts. So all would still be good.

And why does all this matter if it was about jobs that were or were not threatened?

Because once we all agree that there is no threat to “9,000 jobs,” it becomes clear that Liberal politicians in Quebec City and in Ottawa were really worried about the fading of a star in the firmament of what some call “Quebec Inc.” and no politician looking for support on the island of Montreal can have that. (Meanwhile: the Conservatives say those who do not live on the island of Montreal — where their support in the province is based — seem to be perfectly content to see SNC-Lavalin face the fate of any other accused wrongdoer.)

But once it’s clear that the economic armageddon is just a bogeyman whipped up by someone somewhere to scare Liberal politicians into action, we are back once again to politics and Jody Wilson-Raybould’s initial complaint.

Last week, Wilson-Raybould recounted a meeting she had in September with Trudeau and Wernick. In her testimony, she said Wernick started things out at that meeting, saying, “There is an election in Quebec soon.

"At that point,” Wilson-Raybould testified, “The prime minister jumped in, stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that 'and I am an MP in Quebec—the member for Papineau'.

"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, 'Are you politically interfering with my role/my decision as the attorney general? I would strongly advise against it.'

"The Prime Minister said, 'No, no, no. We just need to find a solution.’"

A solution to what, Prime Minister?

David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News.

Also watchTrudeau's response to SNC-Lavalin has changed almost on daily basis: Scheer says jobs argument is discredited 

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