Chairman's Desk

A theory on Justin Trudeau’s lack of contrition

This op-ed first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 10, 2019.

How different this week could have been if Gerald Butts’ testimony was a springboard and not a trial balloon.

On Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, who is among his closest friends and confidants, did exactly what was required to change the arc of the story. He established himself as a credible and personable actor with a different interpretation of the events that led to the cabinet resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Jane Philpott.

After all, as the adage goes, there are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth.

Most persuasively, Butts advanced the argument that all cabinet members have an “obligation” to inform the PM of concerns that rise to a level that necessitates one’s resignation.

Furthermore, “If it is a question of law and that minister is the attorney general, the obligation to inform the prime minister is of an even higher order. And it ought to be in writing so that its significance isn’t lost.”

Butts also contrasted the volume and frequency of interactions – 10 phone calls and 10 meetings over a period of almost four months – to the hundreds of meetings he personally attended in consideration of the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline or Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement negotiations.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Butts’ testimony allowed the Liberal Party, cabinet, caucus, staffers and supporters alike, the opportunity to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in a full calendar month.

By sundown that day, the government found itself in a materially better position.

And things looked like they were going to get a lot better. The media were summoned to a most unusual daybreak news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday.

According to so-called “well placed sources with knowledge of the prime minister’s thinking,” contrition was to be on the day’s agenda.

But that was not to be. In fact, the prime minister stopped well short of an apology. Instead, he would only acknowledge that “there was an erosion of trust between my office, my former principal secretary and the former attorney general.” There was no suggestion that his office had made a mistake; no suggestion he was willing to utter the words so many had waited to hear: “I’m sorry.”

His only regret? That, “situations were experienced differently.”

Whatever progress Butts had made for the government was undone. By the end of the half-hour media availability, Team Trudeau found itself stuck in the same mud in which it has been mired in since l’affaire SNC-Lavalin leapt into the national consciousness.

If such thin gruel was all that was to be on offer, why summon Canadians’ attention at all? Why not let Butts’ testimony stand on its own.

Instead of acknowledging impropriety, announcing further staffing changes, or making a decision to separate the attorney general portfolio from that of the minister of justice, there was only an astonishing display of hubris.

Even before he was elected, the criticism of Justin Trudeau was that he was all style and no substance. Whether or not you agree (and I don’t), this week’s performance did nothing to dissuade his detractors.

So why on Earth could the prime minster not bring himself to apologize? Especially given we Canadians apologize so frequently it has been deemed part of our national character.

The explanation may well lie, or at least be rooted, in the psycho- and physiological effects of stress that we sometimes encounter in times of crisis.

When confronting threatening or uncontrollable situations, our body’s endocrine system is programmed to produce changes in our central nervous system. It is what makes us more alert, more ready to fight or flee. It’s what elevates our heart rate and causes both sleeplessness and those pesky butterflies.

It also influences our cognitive processing, compromises decision making and contributes to errors in judgment. We are programmed to be reactionary, not considered. We limit the options at our disposal and revert to old habits – just when we need to do the very opposite.

I have a hunch that’s what happened in the very highest levels of our government this week.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.