Justin Trudeau Promotional portrait of Justin Trudeau. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The neoliberal centre’s cover boy cannot protect Canadians from hard edged austerity or the racist right, argues John Clarke

In Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ the main character leads an evil and depraved life but retains his youthful good looks, while a secretly stored portrait of himself takes on the the full ugliness of his misspent life. Canada’s fake ‘progressive’ Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in much the same way, has put a photogenic face on a regime of neoliberal restructuring and global exploitation. For some time now, misgivings as to his social justice credentials have been creeping into public discourse.  Recently, however, the whole sham has come seriously unstuck under the damaging impact of a major and very dirty scandal well beyond the healing powers of PR spin and photo ops.

Corporate Errand Boy

Canada’s largest engineering construction firm, Montreal based SNC-Lavalin, has been described as “the shame of Quebec Inc.”  It’s history of corruption is as extensive as it is formidable.  Company executives have been implicated in bribing public officials at home and abroad. Those involved prefer the more circumspect term “project consultancy costs” to describe these activities. There is no need to belabour the point here and we can simply note that this has gone on on a truly impressive scale, with hundreds of millions spent on greased palms.  The company faces federal charges in Canada, that allege SNC-Lavalin bribed officials in Libya to the tune of $48 million while defrauding others in the Country of $130 million.

So far, this might just be yet another routine manifestation of ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism.’ However, this company happens to enjoy a particularly close relationship with the Liberal Party and one of its Montreal MPs, Justin Trudeau. In his role as corporate errand boy, the PM wanted to make a problem go away for SNC-Lavalin.  A conviction could result in it being barred from bidding on government contracts, something it has been known to do rather a lot of. So, a lobbying effort was set in motion. The same year the charges were laid, the Trudeau Liberals came to power and appointed to the role of Minster of Justice and Attorney-General the first Indigenous person to hold that office, Jody Wilson-Raybould. The following Spring, the Government tabled a bill to amend the Criminal Code to allow “remediation agreements” under which accused companies could bargain with prosecutors and make amends for criminal actions without facing conviction.  By the merest coincidence, SNC-Lavalin had been asking for this very measure to be adopted.

Before this initiative became law, the company approached the Public Prosecution Service to begin an effort to obtain a deal on the charges. In September of 2018, prosecutors made clear that such a deal would not be negotiated.  The same month, Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould discussed the matter and the process of pressuring her to overturn the prosecutors’ decision began in earnest. In January of this year, all efforts to win her over having failed, Wilson-Raybould was removed from her post and put into the role of Minister of Veterans Affairs. This was not exactly in line with Trudeau’s much proclaimed desire to build ‘reconciliation’ with the Indigenous Peoples.

By this point, the whiff of scandal was well and truly in the air.  Only the naive or fiercely partisan were likely to accept that the Liberals weren’t working to line up a cozy deal for a big company up to no good.  Wilson-Raybould withdrew from the Cabinet on February 12 and on the 18th, Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigned but insisted there was no wrongdoing whatsoever behind his decision. Meanwhile, the House of Common justice committee, with a Liberal majority, was working to ensure its deliberations would be conducted behind closed doors. However, obviously under great pressure, on February 25, Trudeau gave the former AG permission to tell her side to the committee.

Wilson-Raybould’s four hours of testimony before the Justice Committee certainly took the scandal to a new level for the Trudeau Government. She told a tale of ‘intense political pressure and veiled threats related to the SNC-Lavalin affair.’  The following quote from her testimony expresses just how bad things looked for Trudeau.

For a period of four months from September to December 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould testified that she was told SNC-Lavalin might move out of Montreal if they did not get what they wanted and that hundreds of jobs were on the line.  She recalled a conversation with Trudeau in which he again raised the issue of potential job losses in Quebec. He told her that, there would soon be an election in that province and that “I am an MP in Quebec, the MP for Papineau.”

Implications of the Scandal

At the beginning of March, Treasury Board President, Jane Philpott, resigned from the cabinet because she could no longer ‘defend all cabinet decisions and other ministers publicly.’  She made it very clear that pressure that was applied to subvert the principle of independent decision making by prosecutors was the key factor in her decision. The parliamentary party or ‘Liberal caucus’ as it would be referred to here, then had to decide how to deal with two high profile dissidents in its midst. Much was made of Wilson-Raybould’s having secretly taped a conservation with the clerk of the Privy Council. Since this is not quest for heroes within the Liberal Party, it need not concern us here. The key issue is that the image of ‘sunny ways’ and progressive directions has been exposed as a total sham. The cynical self serving machinations of a regime that is thoroughly beholden to corporate power and money have been laid bare. Astoundingly, Trudeau’s inner circle and the broader Liberal establishment seem unable to manage any form of competent damage control but, instead, find ways to make things even worse.

On April 2, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were expelled from the Liberal caucus and banned from running as Party candidates in the next election.  This decision seems tailor made to make the political crisis worse for Trudeau. “You know you are in trouble in politics when your damage control is more damaging than what made it necessary,” observed one media commentator. With the next federal election due by October, there is every reason to expect that the SNC-Lavalin scandal will continue to reverberate and to increase the prospects of a Liberal defeat.

The present scandal, as powerful and even decisive as it may be, serves to highlight a general political factor at work internationally. The governments and political parties associated with the neoliberal mainstream are increasingly discredited and, even where they manage to obtain and cling to power, rapidly bring down on themselves widespread political hostility. Where there is as yet no serious left alternative ready to break with the austerity consensus, such as the Corbyn led Labour Party represents, the electoral beneficiaries are to be found ever further to the right. In Canada, where no major move to the left has occurred within the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), the Conservative opposition at the federal level stands ready to implement hard edged austerity and embraces the racist right with an enthusiasm that makes Jacob Ress-Mogg look cautious by comparison. A veritable right wing wave is winning control at the provincial level, with the Tory Government of Ontario as one of its pillars. It is clear that there is no protection from the right at the hands of a representative of the neoliberal centre, like Justin Trudeau, who reveals his true face in something so revealing and vile as the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.