Monday, March 11, 2019

TORONTO — It’s irony piled on irony: Perhaps the world’s foremost feminist political leader engages in a plan to save jobs and boost his election chances.

In a perfect trifecta, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has instead seen his feminist bona fides mocked, created three vacancies in his Cabinet and put his hopes of a second term in elections this fall seriously in doubt.

Mr. Trudeau has taken a startling fall from grace in the wake of a badly handled campaign in which he and senior members of his government pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous person and third woman to hold the Cabinet post, not to seek a criminal prosecution of Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, Canada’s largest engineering company, which was accused of corrupt business dealings in Libya.

Mr. Trudeau and Liberal Party aides feared that severe legal punishment would lead the company to take thousands of jobs out of Quebec, but critics say the government is guilty of a messy pressure campaign to short-circuit a legal proceeding for political ends.

In his quest to save jobs in his home province of Quebec and secure his re-election in October, Mr. Trudeau has lost three key members of his inner circle and suffered a sharp drop in his approval ratings.

Mr. Trudeau has staunchly denied any wrongdoing and refused to apologize, but opposition leaders have gleefully pounced on the scandal. They say the SNC-Lavalin affair has exposed the prime minister’s real character.

“In attempting to contain the damage, the real Justin Trudeau has emerged,” Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer wrote in a Toronto Sun op-ed this weekend. “Not the model of openness, transparency, feminism and reconciliation he pitched to Canadians during the 2015 election.

“The real Justin Trudeau avoids accountability, shifts blame, suppresses dissent, pushes falsehoods and rationalizes corruption,” Mr. Scheer said.

In the past three weeks, Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Treasury Board President Jane Philpott and Mr. Trudeau’s old friend and Principal Secretary Gerry Butts have resigned in the wake of revelations and testimony about the scandal.

Scandal or misunderstanding?

Mr. Trudeau describes the disagreement with his former minister as a misunderstanding. Lavalin, a company with 9,000 employees in Canada, faces charges that it paid $36 million in bribes to Libyan officials and defrauded various Libyan organizations of $97.5 million from 2001 to 2011. If convicted, Lavalin could face a 10-year ban on bidding for federal government projects. This, some say, could result in job losses and even a relocation of the company’s headquarters out of Canada.

To avoid this outcome, Mr. Trudeau’s aides tried to persuade Ms. Wilson-Raybould to offer Lavalin a deal known as a deferred prosecution agreement, which would allow the company to pay a fine and avoid the ban on federal contracts.

Mr. Trudeau said the “pressure campaign” on the attorney general amounted to just 10 meetings and 11 phone calls over four months and that they did not amount to “inappropriate pressure.”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould has not accused her former boss of anything illegal. However, after Mr. Trudeau demoted her to veterans affairs minister in January, she resigned from his Cabinet and went public with her complaints of a “consistent and sustained effort” to interfere with her independence as attorney general.

This month, Ms. Philpott resigned as president of the Treasury Board, a post that oversees government finances. She said she had lost confidence in the prime minister’s government.

“There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them,” she said in a statement.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould has not made public her reasons for refusing Lavalin’s request for a mediation settlement, but she hinted that it was related to her experience as a leader of her aboriginal tribe.

“I come from a long line of matriarchs, and I am a truth-teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House,” she said.

Major lobbying push

As the government reeled, reports said the campaign to help SNC-Lavalin was more extensive than originally let on.

Lavalin officials had 80 contacts with the Trudeau government — though not one with Ms. Wilson-Raybould or her department — in an effort to get the criminal code changed to its benefit.

The Lavalin scandal has dominated headlines, and polls show it has drained support from Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals as they look ahead to a national election that must be held no later than October.

“The Liberals are now 10 points behind the Conservatives,” said Lorne Bozinoff, president of the polling firm Forum Research. However, the election is still six months away and 2015 polls showed voter preference changed three times before the Liberals won a decisive victory.

Liberal Party support is down in the west and parts of Ontario, where Mr. Trudeau’s party can afford to lose seats, but it is largely unaffected in eastern Canada, Quebec and urban areas of Ontario. That means Mr. Trudeau might win in the fall but with fewer seats in Parliament, said Akaash Maharaj, CEO of Toronto’s Mosaic Institute, a multicultural think tank.

But the near-unanimous opinion is that the prime minister could have handled the whole affair much better. If Mr. Trudeau wants to win back the confidence of Canadians, then he needs to abandon his “tedious” repetition of apologies and insincere “stock phrases” in response to every question, Mr. Maharaj said.

Mr. Trudeau’s defenders note that the political and press uproar is far out of proportion to the underlying incident. Even Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she did not feel that the pressure on her to rule one way or another was illegal.

Mr. Trudeau’s international celebrity and his public moves to boost the roles of women in public life may be coming back to haunt him.

“People south of the border would be astonished to think that this is the type of scandal that they have in Canada,” Eddie Goldenberg, who was a prime ministerial adviser to Jean Chretien, told The Associated Press.

“There is a political correctness here,” he said. “Nobody wants to go after an indigenous woman minister. It’s become politically incorrect to question the former minister.”

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