Andrew Scheer contributed significantly to Canadian political life by saying recently that the SNC-Lavalin affair isn’t just about choosing between Justin Trudeau and Scheer.
The Conservative leader did further good by making clear that the SNC-Lavalin mess isn’t even just about an abstraction called the rule of law. It is, he spelled out for those at the annual Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa, about protecting the very concrete, very practical division of responsibilities that comprise our legal system.
In our system, the official Opposition leader reminded, we don’t tolerate political pressure on the police during the investigative phase of potential wrongdoing. Nor would we ever countenance such intrusion, overt or subtle, on a judge weighing evidence to make a ruling. Crown prosecutors must be fiercely protected from external actors as they decide whether to proceed with charges and trial.
The very need for a key parliamentary figure such as Scheer to go back to basics in front of a crowd of case-hardened political obsessives demonstrates the importance of his contribution. Indeed, it almost makes up for his own misstep earlier this year when he demanded, wildly prematurely, Prime Minister Trudeau’s resignation as the scandal gathered steam.
Scheer’s early maladroitness risked diverting SNC-Lavalin into yet another humdrum story of opposition parties seeking electoral advantage by whooping about alleged government malfeasance. We’ve wavered in that direction numerous times since.
Scheer’s recent comments, then, can be taken as recognition that he, too, must be part of the effort to keep rigorous focus on what truly matters in the scandal.
What matters is the profound threat of institutional damage if those who work within the component elements of our legal system begin to feel hot, sour political breath upon their necks.
What matters is that it won’t matter one whit who the prime minister is if we lessen by an iota our vigilance in protecting them.
What matters is that democracy can’t survive when equality before the law becomes a cynical joke, which is what the SNC-Lavalin affair portended.
It’s here that Scheer’s weekend comments substantially clarify and edify. Even factoring out partisan rhetoric, Canadians have come to discuss SNC-Lavalin as very much a contest between former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and various players in the prime minister’s office, up to and including the PM.
Indeed, a staple of the Liberal defence has been that it was all just an intra-office personality-driven misunderstanding.
Such a way of telling the tale obscures the crucial detail that the initial decision to proceed to trial was not Wilson-Raybould’s to make. Further, I haven’t heard anything to make credible the idea that she took an activist role in pushing for prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
What she did, based on her testimony to the justice committee, was support the judgment of the director of federal prosecutions. What she did, from everything I’ve heard, is affirm that nothing she saw in the discernment process led her to overrule the decision of a highly-qualified Crown prosecutor.
It’s a distinction that makes a massive difference to the way we’ve come to understand and talk about the scandal. It kicks the props, for example, out of the argument that Wilson-Raybould could, under the legislation allowing for deferred prosecution agreements, have intervened. Yes, she could have. But nothing in front of her justified, in her mind, taking the active step of setting aside the judgment of the individual responsible for judging the best way to take the case forward.
Entirely reasonably, she refused to let others interfere with her own best judgment. By so refusing, she precluded any interference cascading down through the legal system and undermining the best judgment of those who report to her.
Remember, after all, that the whole debate around the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin is whether the criminal charges facing the company should go before a trial judge.
Scheer’s significant contribution reminds all of us that the very process of how we arrive at legal judgment must be defended without fail. Such defence must always stand outside politics, regardless of the prime minister’s name.
Peter Stockland is a senior writer with the think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.