CONSERVATIVES on Parliament Hill say they are shocked and appalled at the behaviour of the prime minister in the SNC-Lavalin affair. What about their own behaviour this week?

Baying like hounds while the finance minister tried to deliver a budget, walking out of the chamber en masse as the country’s spending plans were being laid out, forcing all-night voting separately on all 257 budget line items, and claiming that the budget is an attempt by the government to deflect attention from SNC.

Here’s a question for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer: In the absence of an SNC affair, would the federal budget be designed for some purpose other than revealing the government’s spending plans? The government is obliged to table an annual budget and it was time for 2019’s budget. The claim that the entire exercise was a smokescreen to make Canadians look away from SNC is ludicrous. Certainly the government will have hoped for that effect but that was hardly the basis for writing and presenting it on Wednesday.

Then there is the opposition parties’ take on the budget itself. Scheer says $23 million in new spending is irresponsible and insists the budget should be balanced “at any cost” — which would involve financial pain for Canadians already pained. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh went to the other extreme, saying the budget “delivered crumbs” to Canadians.

In the middle, the Liberals targeted constituencies seeking government relief — young people dreaming of home ownership, seniors trying to live a more comfortable retirement, Indigenous people suffering from bad water and poor housing, rural Canadians who would like the high-speed Internet their urban neighbours take for granted.

Are these constituencies the government needs in order to win a second electoral mandate in October? Of course they are. Any government that ignores its bases isn’t going to last long enough to carry out its plans. Canadians will decide for themselves whether the budget is aimed only at Liberal supporters or whether it’s designed to respond to the needs of a wide variety of people on many fronts.

The Conservatives’ latest pitch is to seize on interviews this week by SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce that they say disprove the government’s claim that 9,000 company jobs and SNC-Lavalin’s fate were potentially endangered by the criminal prosecution it seeks to avoid with a deferred prosecution agreement that former justice minister Judy Wilson-Raybould refused to consider.

The jobs were never in danger, say the Tories, and neither was the company.

Here is a transcript of relevant highlights of Bruce’s interview Wednesday with Radio-Canada. You decide.

RC: Did you say a number of job losses to the PMO?

Bruce: We never give a number . . . all we were talking about was, in the worst possible case, if everything went wrong, then basically this is an outcome, something that will happen further down the line.

RC: Did you say to the PMO that SNC could leave Montreal?

Bruce: That’s an eventuality but I think I’ve been really clear on a number of occasions that we’re a proud Canadian company, we’re headquartered in Montreal, we want to stay in Montreal.

Look, none of this is to excuse Trudeau’s ham-handed handling of this thing. Maybe he’s missing former principal secretary Gerald Butts’ counsel. But he’s hardly uttered a genuine answer to a question since it began.

The central lingering question arose from privy council clerk Michael Wernick’s return to the justice committee to follow up on his initial testimony (as did the deputy justice minister, Nathalie Drouin, it should be remembered). Why not invite Wilson-Raybould back too?

The likeliest reason is that it will give the opposition yet more opportunity to over-act, closer to the election, prolonging a controversy that has become much bigger than it deserves.

A minister says that some people said some things that bothered her but that nothing illegal happened. The Tories would have you believe it’s the scandal of the century.

This whole thing could have been handled internally.

Wilson-Raybould needs to be allowed to say more, insist the opposition, about why she resigned. Does that really matter? She quit after refusing a cabinet appointment and then grousing about the assignment she got instead, and yet she’s still welcomed as a member of the Liberal caucus. It’s all in the family now.

What’s more, Wilson-Raybould can say whatever she wants, if she wants. “Now that she is outside of cabinet, Ms. Wilson-Raybould is freer to speak her mind,” wrote Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, in the Globe and Mail.

“If they’re speaking in the House, or in a committee proceeding, they are absolutely protected by the law of parliamentary privilege and no legal proceeding of any kind can be brought against them,” said Rob Walsh, the former Commons law clerk, on CBC News Network.

If Wilson-Raybould wants to tell more of her “truth,” she is free to do so from her seat in the Commons. She and Jane Philpott, who quit her cabinet post on principle and now says dramatically there is “more to know,” could have risen during Wednesday’s debate in the House on this matter and enjoyed the overriding protection of parliamentary privilege to say what they insist isn’t being heard by Canadians. That would have taken the courage to face their increasingly angry colleagues during the marathon House voting session, something they were spared by taking advantage of what the party says was an offer to stay away.

Wilson-Raybould said on Friday that she will release to the justice committee texts and emails she cited in her Feb. 17 testimony and a statement that will “elucidate the accuracy” of what others said at the committee — i.e., Butts and Wernick. That should be interesting and she should do so immediately, and the committee should release them as soon as it considers them. However, she said the material will be “within the confines of cabinet confidence” which would not apply were she to speak in the Commons.

This thing has dragged on far too long. These two women are lobbing innuendos while the government they insist they support tries to sell its last budget before the election. If there is more to be said, then say it in the House. No more drama.

Why isn’t Wilson-Raybould saying anything? Veteran political writer Thomas Walkom has a theory: The former attorney general and justice minister does not appear prepared to stop until Justin Trudeau resigns — and looks to be setting herself up for a run at leadership. If that is the case, Trudeau will be wise to keep his enemy close in caucus.

(Originally published March 23, 2019)

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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