Wilson-Raybould shows us how power really works in Ottawa

SNC-Lavalin held 89 meetings with government. Guess how often oil companies lobby Trudeau?

I, like many Canadians, sat in awe during the testimony of former Attorney General and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould last week. I was impressed by her courage, her commitment to ethics, her attention to detail and her perseverance. I was not, however, surprised by her story.

In B.C., everyday people are getting pretty used to being walked all over by corporations, CEOs and lobbyists. And we are unsurprised when politicians hold the door open for them to stomp all over us. This has happened in the ‘Wild West’ for decades, especially before we banned Big Money in politics and changed campaign donation laws.

And now, thanks to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, we are getting a glimpse of how decisions are really made in Ottawa.

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony opens up a whole host of uncomfortable questions: If SNC-Lavalin was granted that much access to high-ranking ministers and PMO officials, what other corporations have similar power over our decision makers?

In British Columbia, we automatically think of the largest corporate give-away in recent memory: Trudeau’s $4.4 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. But were Big Oil lobbyists afforded the same access as SNC-Lavalin?

The answer is: more.

SNC-Lavalin, Trans Mountain: By the numbers

In 2017 SNC-Lavalin sent a letter asking the new Public Services Minister, Carla Qualtrough, to change the country’s anti-corruption laws “as expeditiously as possible.” The company wanted the option of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement in Canada — a wish it was granted in the following budget.

Pressure from the construction giant didn’t stop there. Over the past 12 months, federal officials met with SNC-Lavalin a total of 89 times. Almost all these meetings were with Neil Bruce, the President and CEO of SNC-Lavalin, who came to SNC from the oil & gas industry. One of his stated purpose for these meetings included “policy changes related to white collar crime.”

SNC wanted special treatment from the federal government. They wanted a way to escape criminal corruption charges, so they could continue to bid on multi-billion dollar public contracts. As Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould had the power to refuse to interfere in the prosecution against SNC. But what if that decision had been up to the whole cabinet?

Oil companies also want something from the federal government. Oil producers want as many pipelines as possible to Gulf Coast and California refineries, so they can expand exports of heavy crude before global climate action renders it worthless. How many times have those companies lobbied government to build them a pipeline? A lot more than SNC-Lavalin.

I filtered these meetings down to only include lobbyists who specified “Trans Mountain” in their registration. I also included the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association in my calculations. While their registration does not explicitly mention the Trans Mountain pipeline, the lobby group has been very public in their support for the project. Their lobby records do include seeking changes to laws that are directly related to the pipeline and tanker project and the National Energy Board.

The total number of meetings between industry lobbyists and the government related to Trans Mountain in the past year is 356 — four times the meetings granted to SNC-Lavalin.

Testimony from Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts, seems to suggest that last summer, the Prime Minister’s Office was far more concerned with pipeline expansion than it was in obstructing the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.

In his testimony to the Justice Committee, Gerald Butts outlined the number of meetings the PMO’s office had with the finance minister’s office in the weeks leading up to the purchase of Trans Mountain: “On the TMX acquisition… I would say probably 100.” Talk about consistent and sustained pressure.

Butts was offering this information in an effort to put the ten meetings the PMO had with the Attorney General about SNC-Lavalin in context.

Lobbyists run this place

This is not intended to be an apples-to-apples comparison. I’ve identified ten different companies and industry associations lobbying for the Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion project. SNC-Lavalin appears to have acted alone.

Still, the SNC example hints at the scale of lobbyist pressure influencing legislation and big decisions in Ottawa.

Wilson-Raybould described to Canadians how she saw things: SNC-Lavalin threatened the government and Trudeau bent to their whim — hiding a get-out-of-jail-free card law in an omnibus budget bill and then pressuring the Attorney General to use it.

To British Columbians this story is all too familiar. A Texas-based pipeline company threatens the government and Trudeau jumps. How high? Trudeau was taken for a fool, paying $4.4 billion to buy the 65 year-old leaky pipeline — and the rights to an expansion that was halted by the courts. This time, however, it was easier to get the minister responsible onboard — Bay Street CEO Bill Morneau is no Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Presumably also in lockstep was Morneau’s chief of staff, Ben Chin. Chin was explicitly and repeatedly named in Wilson-Raybould’s testimony as pressuring her and her chief of staff to offer SNC-Lavalin a DPA. He is recorded as being part of multiple lobbyist meetings with both SNC-Lavalin — and oil interests lobbying for Trans Mountain. And to British Columbians, he might be even more familiar. The former news anchor was Christy Clark’s executive director of communications.

But jobs…

Trudeau makes the same case for both SNC-Lavalin and Trans Mountain: jobs. If SNC-Lavalin moves its headquarters… jobs! If we don’t get Trans Mountain built… jobs!

Jobs are important. It’s true. But Canadians need to ask ourselves what kind of jobs we want. Do we want employment at any cost, even if it is building prisons in Libya for a murderous dictator? What if it’s working on construction contracts bought from politicians by mob bosses? What if those jobs hasten the disintegration of our climate and ecosystems, the extinction of other species or the death and displacement of millions of people?

We need to ask ourselves what kind of jobs — what kind of country — we want. No matter how many meetings or illegal campaign donations CEOs and lobbyists can cough up, politicians work for us. And Canadians are demanding better of our government. We are no longer going to put up with corporations who blackmail us to get their way, or corruption and greed from politicians who talk out of both sides of their mouth, at the expense of our ethics, our laws, our health, our communities or our futures.

Trudeau’s Liberals are up for re-election in just eight short months. And as has become clear from Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Trudeau is truly worried about only one job: his. If his party is capable of breaking free from the clutches of corporate lobbyists, now is the time to prove it. Otherwise, this government could be a one-term wonder.

13 Responses to “Wilson-Raybould shows us how power really works in Ottawa”

  1. George Webb says:

    The problem is the Conservatives would carry on in the same way but would need less lobbying to do the corporations bidding. The only potential way out is for Canadian to vote for the NDP and the Greens but it is doubtful they can win a majority. Best hope is a liveral minority with the Greens or the NDP with the balance of power

  2. Joys Chow says:

    Cronyism and old boys sticking together using the same playbook is nothing new. However, in the past when they close rank, no one could gainsay them even though we, the little guys, see right through them. So we go back to our lives, earn our livings and look after our family. What’s new this time is that we have someone of equal stature willing to speak up, doing her job as the attorney general. JWR and then, JP have created an opportunity for every citizen to have a voice in this. What saddens and frightens me is that even in the current atmosphere of #metoo movement and mansplaining, there are still too many comments based on her sex rather than her capability. At the same time, there are also many who are willing to repeat sound bites that are put out by the PMO – seemingly not finding them at odds with our PM’s actions.
    If we voted for transparency, accountability and representation, then we can’t shirk our responsibility to hold our government responsible.

  3. Elizabeth Brunelle says:

    SNC lobbied Scheer and he was more than willing to do the same thing that Trudeau was trying to do.

    • Lisa Sammartino says:

      They did lobby Scheer in advance of the bill with the DPA passing. They also met with Jagmeet Singh around the same time.

  4. henry borkowski says:

    So this begs the question as to who drafted the legislation for the deferred prosecution agreement option…. was JWR on side with it back then ? or did others in cabinet back then push for it by saying well it doesn’t have to be used. Maybe JWR felt it was wrong to write a new law and push it through with the decision virtually already made to use it with SNC. I wonder when SNCs legal staff first saw the new law? Before it was passed I bet…

  5. Mary Armstrong says:

    I agree. A Liberal minority is our best bet.

  6. Dave King says:

    Trudeaus comment today in response to the JWR case, were just waffle. Grabbing at a straw that there was disagreement, trying to save jobs. Sure the disagreement was he wanted JWR to change her mind, he tried several tactics to get her to do that. Saving jobs, where is the proof that jobs were in danger? We have never been given that information. Trudeau needs to come clean, but he never will now.

  7. Gary Warburton says:

    I for one would like to see the greens and the NDP into one party called the Green progressives. The NDP have no choice but to completely accept green ideology the the green party we have to reject the token green initiatives of the liberals which are really a corporate party anyway. And the greens can`t really take a corporate view of economics and ignore human rights and progress ideas either it is not what you do if you believe in Democracy.

  8. Fred says:

    Corporate capture of almost all politicians in Canada at every level of government is complete and should be no surprise to the Canadian electorate. Our problem now in this so called democracy is How will this ever be resolved?

  9. Mama Bear says:

    Good question henry borkowski. Who did draft the deferred prosecution agreement and what is its background?

  10. Ed Northcott says:

    “A get-out-of-jail-free card law” — I frequently see this take foisted on the mess surrounding the SNC-Lavalin affair. I can’t even bring myself to call it a scandal, as it shouldn’t be. It’s a molehill being made into a mountain.

    A deferred prosecution agreement is a new tool in the Crown’s toolbox, cribbed from success that’s been had with similar legislative measures in the Netherlands, England, and the USA. The end effect is essentially to reverse this bizarre trend of treating corporations like people, and instead treat them like groups of people — some of whom are innocent, and some of whom are guilty. A DPA defers full prosecution, but in lieu of that levies a financial penalty and puts conditions of operation on the company, ensuring that they comply with agreed-up ethical standards for the term of the agreement or full prosecution proceeds immediately. In addition, it frees up prosecution to go *directly* after the decision-makers responsible for the corruption (who are not exempt from prosecution), and spares innocent workers from having their lives turned upside down. It’s shown success in turning around the behaviour of such companies, and creates an incentive for CEOs to make ethical decisions — because under DPAs, they’re not sheltered from the consequences of their actions: instead, it’s in the company’s best interests to hand over everything they can so that the decison-makers are the prime targets.

    For years on end we’ve all lamented about how big business does horrible things, then the company gets a slap on the wrist, corrupt CEOs fall softly with their golden parachutes, and the everyday worker gets hosed as their positions are cut to feed the fatcats and the corporations. This turns it around. Finally.

    And everybody’s whining about the government pushing for its use. Current evidence points to everyone around JWR advising her to take this route; her superior, her peers, even her subordinates who prepared a report on the impact of prosecution — a report she buried.

    I’m far from impressed with Trudeau’s leadership, but it’s not because he leaned too hard on Wilson-Reybould. It’s because he didn’t take a strong enough tack and shut this down hard. He’s so busy trying to be huggy-feely and stay on good terms with everyone that he’s let his cabinet and caucus go to Hell because he’s trying to validate everybody’s feelings instead of getting the job done. JWR was wrong, and was willing to proceed with a course of action that would have made thousands of Canadians suffer just to be the one who was ‘right’… and when that failed, she decided to throw a wrench in the political machinery — first through anonymous info fed to the Globe & Mail, then later directly when she had been removed from the ministerial portfolio she wanted — and increase the odds of Scheer getting elected, instead. This isn’t the behaviour of someone fighting for the common good.

    It blows my mind that people, both left and right, are parroting dogmatic positions instead of looking at what was on the table and judging the situation on its merits.

  11. Ahda says:

    I have watched the hearing and have noted that the statements made by the clerk of the privy council Wernick are passing without much public discussion. In my opinion for him to say that his actions were not politically motivated does not negate the evidence that suggests that he was, however, acting in support of the intensive lobbying done by SNC Lavalin. Those efforts began many years ago and Mr. Wernick has been there in the halls of power since Cretien. The fact that the former clerk of the privy council Kevin Lynch and Wernick have an extended phone call during the time period that the Attorney General was being repeatedly petitioned. The relationship between the clerk of the privy council and that of industry is far too close and it seems evident to me that, beyond elected political leadership, we have a problem in our government and more transparency is needed still in the role that Wernick played.

  12. Bear Hamilton says:

    Ed ……. I think you have summed it up well. The reality of the situation.

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