The national discourse regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair has escalated sharply following the revealing testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould on Feb. 27.
The controversy is based on a relatively straightforward situation: members of the prime minister’s office pressured former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould into approving a deal (called a deferred prosecution agreement) that would help SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering and construction company, avoid charges of fraud and corruption. These charges were brought against the company in 2015 by the RCMP, who alleged that SNC-Lavalin tried to bribe public officials in Libya and defraud Libyan businesses out of millions of dollars.
This would probably lead to SNC-Lavalin being convicted of criminal charges, which would forbid them from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years, and possibly terminate ongoing projects.
Thanks to Wilson-Raybould and a series of questionable and highly-publicized decisions and statements made by the Liberal Party, the scandal has now grown big enough to burst out of what political commentators call the “Ottawa bubble.” This term refers to the way in which the drama of political affairs on Parliament Hill sends government officials, politics nerds, Twitter junkies, and journalists into a frenzy, while a large portion of the Canadian public generally couldn’t care less.
Controversies like “elbowgate,” former cabinet minister Bev Oda ordering a $16 glass of orange juice, and the time Trudeau loudly (and hilariously) called Peter Kent a piece of shit during question period, can be looked back on as a sort of cute arrangement of antique teapots, each filled with their own tiny tempests. Sure, these things often result in politicians having to resign, but the typical reaction from everyone outside the bubble is to shrug, move on, and forget about the whole affair in about a month and a half.
A lot of people initially dismissed the SNC-Lavalin affair as another one of these moments. What its relevance was to Canadians across the country, other than politicians or people employed by SNC-Lavalin and their contract partners, was unclear.
Well, as we discovered after Wilson-Raybould testified in front of the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights, it affects a lot of people. And the list is growing. The situation is now a full-blown publicity nightmare for the federal Liberals as they circle the drain, inching perilously closer to the vacuum left by a number of still-unanswered questions:
Why did the government—including Justin Trudeau, who was specifically mentioned as being involved—think they could continue to pressure its own Justice Minister, even after she clearly refused their requests? Was she shuffled out of her position into Veteran Affairs because of her decision? Was the pressure to approve the DPA borne out of political self-interest or a genuine desire to protect thousands of jobs? Will Wilson-Raybould ultimately be kicked out of the party for bringing this to light?
It is a big deal that the government seemed very motivated to influence the judicial process in order to protect the interest of a Quebecois engineering and construction corporation. Canadians will have to ask themselves whether they can support a party that will so doggedly try to circumvent a straightforward judicial processes, possibly for political reasons.
The question has changed from “will this scandal have enough weight to affect their polls before the election?” to “how much it will affect their polls before the election?’” The consequences will be real this time, and if the party doesn’t figure out its problems soon, it could end up costing them a lot more than political capital, goodwill, and public license. It will cost them their party’s reputation, their moral authority, and – most important of all – it will cost them votes. And that’s the absolute last thing they need right now.