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Canada

Chris Selley: Did the Ethics Commissioner just outlaw Canadian politics?

In his second scathing report on the conduct of our current prime minister, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion convincingly argues Justin Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Act by attempting “to influence a decision of another person so as to further (his) private interests … or to improperly further another person’s private interests.”

The person unduly influenced was then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The other parties whose interests were being unduly advanced were Trudeau himself, in the form of partisan gain, and SNC-Lavalin, which desperately wanted to avoid trial over some sticky business in Gadhafi-era Libya and arrange instead a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA).

Trudeau’s defences do not survive Dion’s scrutiny. The PM argues it wasn’t untoward for him to consider Lavalin’s corporate interests inasmuch as they pertained to the company’s employees and pensioners. He will never apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs, etc.

Unfortunately for him, the DPA legislation prohibits considering the “national economic interest” in doling out such agreements. Team Trudeau argues protecting thousands of jobs doesn’t qualify, because the OECD convention from which the legislation was essentially copied and pasted didn’t have job losses in mind. They bolster this case using a Financial Post op-ed by former OECD secretary-general Donald Johnston.

Dion, alas, is more swayed by the plain wording of the convention itself and by its underlying commentaries, as well as by British precedent: A judge considering a DPA for Rolls Royce over bribery allegations explicitly found “possible group-wide redundancies” were irrelevant to the matter, owing to the prohibition in question.

Trudeau’s defences against charges he was pursuing partisan interests, meanwhile, are spectacularly weak. Wilson-Raybould kept being reminded the PM represented a riding in Quebec, he says, because he wanted to make sure she was considering “the impact government decisions have on Canadians.” That doesn’t really even make sense. Former clerk of the privy council Michael Wernick, for whom no cave must nowadays seem deep enough, insists Wilson-Raybould kept being reminded of the upcoming election in Quebec because it would be untoward for the feds to drop a bomb into the campaign.

Even if you think such consideration is worthy, it concerns a matter of when, not whether, Lavalin would get its DPA or not. Dion is wholly unswayed by Trudeau’s claims to only have been interested in understanding Wilson-Raybould’s reasoning, not in altering it — and rightly so, because they’re laughable.

The case for reasonable doubt, if not outright leniency, was all over Thursday’s papers. It goes something like this: As we have known for some time, the prime minister and his underlings handled the SNC-Lavalin situation terribly, and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s report underlines this. But conflict of interest? Really?

“There is no evidence … that Trudeau personally or the Liberals in general would benefit in a direct way … by shielding SNC-Lavalin from criminal prosecution,” the Toronto Star’s editorial averred. It’s willing to take Trudeau at his word that if he’s guilty of anything, it’s trying too hard to protect Canadian workers.

Similarly, La Presse’s editorial stressed that Trudeau and his helpers, however wayward, were doing nothing but God’s work: “If there’s one thing for which (the Trudeau government) cannot be criticized, it is having wanted to defend the jobs and headquarters of this Quebec flagship.”

Le Devoir’s editorial asked: “Where does the public interest end and self-interest begin when you’re a politician defending, for example, a large, troubled firm in your region on which thousands of voters depend for their livelihood?”

What a good question! If Trudeau is guilty of a conflict of interest in his advocacy for SNC-Lavalin, then surely it impugns a whole lot of what goes on in federal politics. Every time an MP shows up to a private business in his riding clutching a giant novelty cheque, surely he’s treading dangerously close to the jeopardy in which Trudeau now finds himself. If he really just wants to stand up for jobs, why not stay in Ottawa and mail the cheque?

Trudeau defenders keep noting that no money changed hands, and that’s true under his watch. But one of the many black marks against Lavalin is its illegal donations to Canadian political parties in decades past, the vast majority of which went to the Liberals — and the grotesque cosiness between the feds and Lavalin laid bare in Dion’s report only makes one wonder how awful it must have been when corporate donations were legal in federal politics.

Indeed, the only reason a DPA was even available to Lavalin is because it very conveniently landed on the books — crammed into a budget bill, having never been debated at committee, full of clumsily undefined terms like “national economic interest” — just in the nick of time for this “Quebec flagship” to use it. Wilson-Raybould says her understanding is that’s precisely why it came into being. Trudeau and Company’s denials obliterate credulity into a fine pink mist.

In short, whatever else Dion’s report does, it impugns the whole government-corporate complex. And it’s about bloody time. Politicians have been pursuing their own interests, and those of their friends, with house money and influence for far too long.

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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