Freeland makes a nuanced response to ethics report

Chrystia Freeland

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Editorial Writer.

On August 14, with just over two months to go before Canadians head to the polls to elect a new Parliament, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released his latest report, which concluded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contravened section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act by attempting to influence then Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson‑Raybould in her decision on whether to intervene in a criminal prosecution involving Quebec-based company SNC‑Lavalin.

Commissioner Dion determined that, as Prime Minister, Trudeau was the only public office holder able to exert influence over the Attorney General in her decision. He also found that other senior officials within the Prime Minister’s Office were directed, by the Prime Minister, to secure a deferred prosecution agreement instead of bringing the company to trial. The charges against SNC focussed primarily on bribes paid to the family of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, particularly his son Saadi in exchange for billions in contracts. According to these charges, between 2001 and 2011, SNC paid Saadi Gaddafi almost $50 million in exchange for billions of dollars in airport, pipeline, and water infrastructure projects. This even includes $30,000 for sexual services Saadi purchased during his visit to Canada in 2008.

“The Prime Minister, directly and through his senior officials, used various means to exert influence over Ms. Wilson‑Raybould. The authority of the Prime Minister and his office was used to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the authority of Ms. Wilson‑Raybould as the Crown’s chief law officer,” stated Commissioner Dion.

Section 9 of the Act states that “public office holders are prohibited from using their position to seek to influence a decision, to improperly further the private interests of a third party, either by acting outside the scope of their legislative authority, or contrary to a rule, a convention. or an established process. The Commissioner’s conclusion is that “therefore a contravention of the Act was found to have occurred”.

The Commissioner is an independent officer of the House of Commons responsible for helping appointed and elected officials prevent and avoid conflicts between their public duties and private interests.

Trudeau’s reaction has been to say he accepts the report and takes full responsibility for all that transpired, even going so far as to say “the buck stops with the Prime Minister”. However, he noted he disagrees with some of the commissioner’s findings. Frankly, this is an empty statement. If Trudeau truly accepts “full responsibility”, the honourable thing for him to do would be to resign. With an election on the horizon, resignation may be out of the question, but the least he could do would be to apologize. But he refuses even that. “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians’ jobs because that’s my job — to make sure that Canadians, communities and families across the country are supported, and that’s what I will always do,” he stated.

While opposition parties have pounced upon the report and called for the House of Commons Ethics Committee to further investigative these new revelations, Liberals are circling the wagons.

When the Globe and Mail asked all 34 cabinet ministers if they agreed with the commissioner’s finding that Trudeau used his office to attempt to improperly further the private interests of the Quebec engineering giant and to discredit Wilson-Raybould, all of them responded, expressing support for the Prime Minister’s defence of his actions.

Prior to this report, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, spoke with CBC Information Morning host Julianne Hazlewood. She said she still has “100 per cent” confidence in Trudeau, but added she would not comment on the report itself as she had not yet read it in full and “it wasn’t a file that I was personally involved in.

“I think it’s also absolutely the right thing that the prime minister has stepped up and said he accepts full responsibility. Now, it’s also fully the prime minister’s right to disagree with some of the approaches and he’s been clear about that too.

“For Canadians, this is now a report that people can read and come to their own judgment. What I think they do need to know is whether ministers support the prime minister, and I can say unequivocally and with real confidence that I 100 per cent do,” she stated.

That made the headlines, but the first point she made was the following:

”One of the things that I was reflecting on about this is the fact that a tough report like this can be done by an impartial, independent institution, and can be published just before a federal election campaign.

“Standing back, I think we as Canadians should all be really glad that we have strong, independent, democratic institutions that can hold everyone, including my government, to account.”

And when asked directly by Hazlewood: “What do you say to Canadians who look at the report, and who read the news stories, and think, ‘Why would I vote for a prime minister in a party that broke ethics rules?’,” she adroitly sidestepped it.

“In terms of what I say to Canadians about the election, I, 100 per cent say that I very much hope that they will vote for me in my riding, and vote for their Liberal candidates. I think that our government has put forward, and will continue to put forward, the best set of policies that support Canadians, support the Canadian middle class, and stand up for Canada and the world.” No mention of Trudeau or the report.

If Freeland’s response is somewhat nuanced, that’s because she is walking a fine line here. On the one hand she has to express full support for the Prime Minister. On the other hand, she wants to stay clear of the scandal itself. And well she should. With an election which, at this point in time is too close to call, the commissioner’s report may prove to be a tipping point. In that case the Liberals will be looking for a new leader – one who is untainted by scandal, is highly intelligent and has earned a stellar reputation, in a very difficult portfolio. And while the Liberal Party of Canada espouses gender equality, not one of the 18 individuals who have led the party since Confederation, has been a woman. Perhaps Chrystia Freeland’s time has come.