About 30 minutes into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s early morning press conference Thursday, a reporter asked, “Prime minister, are you apologizing today?”
It’s a serious question. The Trudeau government is in the midst of its worst political crisis in its existence and one of the worst crises any government has faced in the last 40 years. And the prime minister is the leading character — some might say the precipitating character in this crisis.
The country’s first Indigenous justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, quit cabinet. Why? “I resigned from cabinet because I did not have confidence to sit around the cabinet table.”
Then, a few days after that, the prime minister’s close friend and principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigned. Why? “I could not allow our friendship to be held against him so resigning was the right and necessary thing to do for the office and for the prime minister.”
Then, a few days after that and after watching how Trudeau and his core group of remaining advisers were handling this crisis, Jane Philpott quit cabinet. Why? “I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.”
So, serious question: Prime minister, are you apologizing today?
“I continue to say [there was] no inappropriate pressure,” Trudeau said in reply to that question. “Obviously [we’re] reflecting on lessons learned, Canadians expect that of us, any time we go through periods of internal disagreement, or challenges to internal trust that we have, there are things we have to reflect on, understand and do better on next time.”
Apparently, no one should have been surprised that Trudeau did not apologize.
“He will always double down when under pressure,” an unnamed Liberal source told Reuters news agency. “That’s his way.”
Trudeau then tried to explain why and how he believed his style of leadership was virtuous.
“I believe real leadership is about listening, learning and compassion,” he said. “Central to my leadership is fostering an environment where my ministers, caucus and staff feel comfortable coming to me when they have concerns.”
That line drew immediate fire from inside the Liberal caucus. Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who has already announced she is not running in 2015, fired off this tweet: “I did come to you recently. Twice. remember your reactions?”
Meanwhile, the prime minister dodged multiple questions from reporters who wanted to know why, in the end, he had to move Wilson-Raybould out of the justice portfolio. She’s convinced — and she testified to this point — that she was moved out of Justice because she wouldn’t play ball, that she wouldn’t do what Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and top aides to all of them wanted her to do: Give SNC-Lavalin a historic, first-of-its-kind deferred prosecution agreement.
On Wednesday, at the House of Commons Justice Committee, Butts explained that initially Trudeau wanted to move Wilson-Raybould to Indigenous Services to replace the apparently indispensable Philpott who was moving to Treasury Board from Indigenous Services to replace the retiring Scott Brison.
“[Trudeau] didn’t want people to think he was relenting at all on the [Indigenous] agenda,” Butts explained. “He said he knows how much [Wilson-Raybould] “loves being MOJAG (Minister of Justice and Attorney General)” but that she was one of our top people, and moving her to Indigenous Services would “show Canadians how seriously we take this.”
Except, as Butts would later acknowledge, this was asking an Indigenous leader who had spent much of her professional life fighting to erase The Indian Act to become The Indian Act’s administrator.
“I should have known that and had we had more time to think of the cabinet shuffle, I probably would have realized it,” Butts said.
It was an untenable position for Wilson-Raybould to be put in and she refused Trudeau’s request, telling him she would not take that job.
But that’s where Butts stopped telling the story of how that fateful cabinet shuffle came about. He didn’t explain how Wilson-Raybould then ended up at Veteran Affairs of all places while the incumbent there, Seamus O’Regan, ended up at Indigenous Services.
Is it the position of the prime minister that appointing O’Regan was showing the country “how seriously we take this” Indigenous agenda? Judging by the reaction of any number of Indigenous leaders and groups, the answer is a resounding no.
Until Trudeau provides a coherent explanation as to why he had to move Wilson-Raybould, it will be difficult not to agree with her suspicions that she was moved, at least in part, because of a decision she did not make.
Meanwhile, the “MOJAG” is now Montreal MP David Lametti and, as he said as recently as Sunday on The West Block with Mercedes Stephenson, the idea that SNC-Lavalin may yet get its deferred prosecution agreement is still very much a possibility.
Jason Lietaer, who has been a key player in federal and provincial conservative election war rooms that have both won and lost, made some excellent points in a Twitter essay that followed the PM’s press conference.
He said the prime minister could have helped kill this story — and, by extension, begin the process of inflating drooping poll numbers for the Liberals and for the PM himself — by, first, committing that the SNC-Lavalin process will proceed as the independent prosecutor judged it should proceed — with no deferred prosecution agreement. He did not do that.
Trudeau should also have apologized and acknowledged his own errors in judgment. He did not do that.
And until at least both of those things are done, Liberals like Wilson-Raybould, Philpott, Caesar-Chavannes and perhaps thousands of other Liberal volunteers, supporters, and donors across the country will continue to wonder about the judgment of their leader and prime minister.