Chairman's Desk

Wilson-Raybould testimony nothing if not a Roman spectacle

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on March 3, 2019.

On Wednesday afternoon, in an event that exceeded its considerable billing, Canada’s former attorney general and minister of justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, filled in many of the contours of Bob Fife’s early-February reporting that thrust the prime minister, his closest advisers and the Liberal Party of Canada into a political firestorm.

Her testimony was as astonishing as it was remarkable in its candour, and willingness to draw blood.

Wilson-Raybould named names and read records: phone calls, emails, text messages and contemporaneous meeting notes.

She told a story of a co-ordinated and persistent effort by the machinery of government – PMO and PCO alike – to influence her decision-making.

She vividly recalled veiled threats and potential personal consequences. Her recollection of 10 phone calls and 10 meetings contradicted Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council.

Her language conveyed, in a straightforward way, her conviction that an injustice had taken place.

And yet, when the dust settled, there remained so much more to be said.

What has the PMO not allowed the former AG to say? Why was she not released to discuss her time as minister of veterans affairs and her resignation from cabinet?

And then beyond the former minister herself, what will others have to say? How will Gerry Butts use his appearance before the justice and human rights committee to recast the government’s narrative?

What about all the other people Wilson-Raybould named?

And above all, how will l’affaire SNC-Lavalin play out in Quebec vs. ROC? Which parties’ electoral fortunes will it help? Whose will it hurt?

While we wait for answers to these and many more questions specific to this matter, we’d do well to think about some of the things that gave rise to this mess at first instance.

Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the opposition, asked Wilson-Raybould on Wednesday if this experience had left her with anything she thinks should be recommended to Parliament.

Wilson-Raybould’s response was instructive.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” she said, “and I think this committee (should) look at the role of the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, and whether or not those two roles should be bifurcated.”

She went on to say that there should be consideration around “having the AG not sit around the cabinet table.”

In hindsight, it’s plainly clear she has a point.

While there are procedural and practical arguments for dividing the roles, perhaps the most important argument for doing so is the simple fact it is unreasonable to ask one person to perform two contradictory roles.

Is it not, on its face, absurd to think that one person can, one minute, be expected to act in a non-partisan way and then in literally the next minute to act as a partisan?

In our system, the minister of justice is inherently partisan: She or he is responsible for drafting partisan policy and shepherding partisan legislation through Parliament on behalf of the governing party.

The attorney general, on the other hand, is the chief law officer of the Crown, responsible for the government’s litigation and for providing legal advice regarding the very policies they have – while wearing their minister of justice hat – helped to draft.

In the United Kingdom, the role of the secretary of state for justice, who has oversight of the ministry of justice, is separate and distinct from the attorney general, who is the chief legal adviser to the Crown and oversees prosecutions but is not usually a member of cabinet.

And when the AG has sat in cabinet, problems have arisen. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s AG, Lord Goldsmith, came to a “better view” of the legality of the Iraq War 10 days after conversations with the prime minister and his cabinet.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

When Wilson-Raybould speaks of the strain that she has been subject to, she refers of course to “political interference.”

But she is also sounding a warning to Canadians that the burden she faced stemmed, at least in part, from a structural flaw in our political system.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt