IMAGINE, if you will, the seventh and final game of a Stanley Cup playoff. The score is 3-2 in favour of the team the NHL’s board of governors quietly believes should take home the cup this year. But there’s still one more period to go, so anything can happen.
And then it doesn’t. The board bizarrely announces that the game is over after only two periods; they’ve seen enough, and it’s time for everyone to go home and forget about it.
Ridiculous? Well, sure. And yet that’s what the federal Liberal government appeared to do last week when it shut down the justice committee’s probe into the SNC-Lavalin affair, just when things were going to get really interesting with the possible re-appearance of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
But it was time to go home, folks. Nothing to see here. The Liberals used their majority on the committee to ensure that there wasn’t even a vote on whether or not Wilson-Raybould should return for a second round of questioning. Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick appeared twice, but not Wilson-Raybould, the very person most Canadians wanted to hear from. There was no second period, let alone a third.
It seems antithetical to the spirit of inquiry, downright undemocratic even, to have the process of inquiry conducted in this way; but the Conservative and NDP members of the committee were outnumbered.
It was good while it lasted, though, with some notable takeaways: Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, lived up to what has long been said about him — that he is both articulate and highly intelligent. What wasn’t expected was the occasional nervous laugh.
Wilson-Raybould, in her first and only appearance before the committee, convinced most Canadians that she was perfectly capable of deciding, on the legal merits, whether or not SNC-Lavalin met the criteria for a deferred prosecution agreement. It turned out she felt it did not; we trust her judgment on that.
It was also clear that very few of us would enjoy being cross-examined by Conservative MP Lisa Raitt (like Butts, a smart Cape Bretoner), who tore into a stone-faced Wernick at every opportunity.
The trouble was that Raitt’s time was constrained by committee rules that limited her to a mere five minutes at a go. For those who watched things unfold live on CPAC, it often seemed that Raitt was cut off by the committee’s Liberal chairman just when she was getting somewhere. Through their majority, the Liberal members had more opportunities to give Butts and Wernick a much softer ride — the government line disguised as questions.
The same Liberal majority also prevented the committee from calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, avoiding the televised spectacle, one supposes, of Raitt having a flustered prime minister (the same prime minister, by the way, who reneged on a promise of electoral reform) jumping up and down like a monkey.
Parliamentary committees should be unfettered by any attempt at damage control by a government fretting about its re-election prospects. Equal time should be given to non-government MPs.
There are those who might dismiss the whole process as theatre, that the only thing that really matters is election day.
Not so. This is not North Korea, where farcical elections place only state-approved candidates on the ballot. Our system is light years ahead, but we cannot take it for granted. We have to work at it, exercising the democratic mechanisms we are lucky to have. We cannot shut things down. At the committee level we can learn a lot of things that are important in a democracy — about the law, about how things really work behind closed doors — whether the government of the day finds it convenient or not.
What we’ve seen these past few weeks is a mere taste of how useful and informative parliamentary committees could be.