Guilty of an ethical breach in the SNC-Lavalin, Justin Trudeau has finally run out of apologies. Beyond simply downplaying what Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion had to say, the prime minister is resorting to an ends-justifies-the-means defence for his lapses.
The motivation for pressuring the attorney general of the day to essentially drop the charges against Lavalin, he says, was a concern for the employees of the company. Not the firm’s donations to the party, not the incessant lobbying, not the corporate interests, not the Quebec headquarters, and not a pending election.
Leaving aside all the other “nots,” even the pretense of possible job losses following a conviction of Lavalin on bribery charges, Trudeau’s rationale fails the sniff test.
The rules about interfering with legal matters are clear. They’re also in place for a reason, with no fine print that allows for a “good reason” exemption. That’s why the ethics commissioner ruled Trudeau violated section 9 the Conflict of Interest Act. It’s clear the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould, at the time justice minister and attorney general, to essentially drop charges against SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering and construction firm.
Equally troubling, the way to circumvent the criminal charges related to bribery of government officials in Libya – and not Lavalin’s first legal issue – was a so-called “remediation agreement” inserted under the radar as part of the 2018 budget omnibus bill. The new option would see a company pay fines to compensate for any wrongdoings, without admitting to such wrongdoings, facing a trial or legal convictions.
The company seems to have spent a few years lobbying for the deferred prosecution option to be included in the Criminal Code. The efforts paid off. Surely because of the inherent value of the legal option, not because it donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Liberals over the years, including more than $100,000 it later admitted was illegal and the party had to return.
There were clearly many reasons for Trudeau to intervene, but none is acceptable.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing is commonplace; corporate greed, intense lobbying, politicians for sale and zero accountability – it’s a combination we’ve seen many times. Successive politicians campaign on cleaning up the past, closing loopholes and governing differently. In the end, they all disappoint, and then the system disappoints us even more by failing to jail or even punish them remotely in line with the crimes they’ve committed.
Ethics run to the heart of politics and good governance. That’s precisely what we should be paying attention to, all the while holding politicians’ feet to the fire.
Increasingly, however, it’s the system itself that poses ethical challenges. A win-at-any-cost mentality that’s more about gamesmanship than it is good governance. Too many machinations and too much strategy, and not enough doing what’s right for the country.
In an ethical government, the means are as important as the ends.
If we’re going to reverse the ethical slide, we’ll need change, starting with voters making ethics an issue. We have to push for real controls – politicians write the rules, going very easy on themselves so far – that will hold them accountable.
Over the years, we worked toward universal suffrage and the elimination of blatant patronage in forging a more democratic system. Ethics are the next issues if our democracy is to evolve.
Unfortunately, Canada’s system of democratic representation is faltering, as a majority of Canadians do not believe their interests are well represented by their elected representatives.
In fact, we believe our elected representatives are not accountable and don’t pay attention to what they think. Canadians feel their MPs represent their political party better than they do their constituents, focusing much of their efforts on a job that Canadians see as a low priority: representing the views of their political parties. It’s partisanship above all else.
In other words, the party line trumps representation.
Ideally, the goings-on will prompt more of us to take note that democracy is under attack, a problem that goes well beyond electioneering and corruption. The fact that many of us can’t even be bothered to vote – fewer than 60 per cent at the federal level, which typically generates the highest turnout – does not bode well for democratic reforms, however.
The goal should be the reinvention of democracy. Well, really, restoring democracy to its original intent: widespread and decentralized decision-making in the public good rather than the top down, hierarchical structure prevalent today.
Better government is what we need to keep in mind. The current process is unethical, dishonest and secretive, which means politicians are more likely to make decisions that are bad for the average Canadian, while favouring corporate interests. We would be better served by a more open, honest and accountable system. On that front, governments occasionally talk a good game, but never deliver.
Politicians write the rules for themselves. They prefer no rules, but failing that they draft vague rules with no enforcement. If there must be enforcement, then there are no penalties for breaking the rules.
They need to hear from voters to counter that, to remind them that they have to do to get elected, even as they employ more tactics to suppress voter turnout in order to give more weight to the party faithful.
Given that they create a system for themselves and preferred corporate interests – politicians are reluctant to do the right thing – we need to force them to do what Canadians want.