For Canadian liberals, or indeed any of us who cling to outdated ideas such as good governance and liberal democratic values, it was like watching a unicorn get flattened by a lorry. Last week, Canada’s undeniably gorgeous, halo-bound Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau — proud feminist, defender of minority rights, advocate for transparency, inclusivity and decency, and prince of the one-armed push-up — was morally eviscerated over four hours of astonishing testimony by his own former attorney-general and justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould — a woman of great integrity and a rare Indigenous Canadian cabinet minister.
To recap, Wilson-Raybould was demoted to the position of veterans affairs minister in a cabinet shuffle earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that she and her staff had been subjected to a “sustained” campaign by the prime minister’s office over the handling of corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering giant accused of bribing Libyan officials. It happens to be a large employer in Quebec, Trudeau’s home state — the prime minister’s office made sure to remind her of that, the job losses such charges might cause and the fact that it was an election year. There was a string of increasingly irate calls, texts and emails. Still, Wilson-Raybould held her ground. The prime minister lost the battle. Then she was demoted.
When the story broke, Trudeau denied any connection between the standoff and Raybould-Wilson’s political punishment. He denied having done anything inappropriate or wrong. The press and public howled. His principal secretary, Gerald Butts, who has been his bestie since their halcyon days in the 90s at McGill University, tried to take one for the team by resigning last week. But it was already too late. Now, Canada’s Tory opposition and many respected commentators are calling for Trudeau’s resignation. It’s a political bloodbath, Canadian style.
For anyone familiar with The Thick of It this might seem odd. In Britain, it is normal for party enforcers to rudely and aggressively pressure cabinet ministers. Delivering irate speeches along the lines of “Do my master’s bidding or I will personally tear your [expletive] skin off and wear it as a cape” is essentially their whole job.
But in this case, it’s complicated by Raybould-Wilson’s role as attorney-general, a position that is meant to sit above the fray of partisan politics. The decision she made was, legally speaking, entirely her own to make. If her testimony — based on copious meeting notes as well as emails and text messages — proves true, Trudeau’s behaviour was way beyond the bounds of what was fair or decent. It was sleazy, plain and simple. And for a leader whose entire brand identity, right down to the toes of his cotton rainbow socks, is based on fairness and decency, that’s pure political poison.
Bad week for ‘small l’ liberals
So it’s been a bad week for Canadian Liberals, and indeed for “small l” liberals everywhere. For those of us who earnestly and passionately believed in Trudeau’s project (slowly raises hand), his moral disgrace is a bitter pill to swallow. The leader we believed to be special and unique has seemingly behaved in ways that reveal him to be probably not all that. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Except for the fact the old boss — Stephen Harper — ruled the country for nearly a decade like a vindictive autocrat, stonewalling the press, overhauling the elections act to his benefit, ignoring climate change and proroguing parliament at a whim. Not that this excuses Trudeau, of course.
There’s no need for despair quite yet — even with the social media outrage. It’s important to remember that Trudeau’s scandal does not cancel out the importance of his government’s project. With any luck a majority of Canadians remain unshaken in the values of liberal democracy, fair governance and the international rules-based order. Come September, my country will, I hope, find a way to persist in its sunny ways and set a clear moral example in this fractious, uncertain world.
The message is still good and clear and true. Too bad about the chap in charge of selling it.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Leah McLaren is a former columnist for The Globe and Mail.