Finding corrupt politicians isn’t a particularly tricky challenge but, for so long, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau was thought to be a different breed. Friendly, conscientious and liberal, Trudeau has long been heralded as an example of how to do politics conscientiously and positively. But now, times have changed, and Trudeau is seemingly being implicated in a major corruption scandal that could spell the end of his premiership. What’s happening in Canada?
This corruption story emerged from a scandal of an entirely different nature. The engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has been accused of paying C$48 million worth of bribes in Libya to the family of Muammar Gaddafi in order to secure lucrative contracts (the bribery allegedly took place between 2001 and 2011, when Gaddafi was killed). The company openly lobbied to be allowed to enter into a remediation agreement instead of going to trial, saying that it had changed its ways, but Canadian prosecutors are still pursuing the case. If it is convicted at its trial, it could result in a decade-long ban on bidding on Canadian federal contracts, which would be a major financial blow.
There are alleged ties between SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau and some of his political pals
So, how does Trudeau enter into the picture? The former attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned suddenly from the Cabinet in February, alleging that she was improperly pressured by some of Trudeau’s closest advisers to prevent the prosecution. She claims that Trudeau and his advisers repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of job losses and the potential political ramifications of a trial, and so issued “veiled threats” pushing for the avoidance of a criminal trial – she also suspected that her demotion to the Veterans’ Affair portfolio in a mid-January reshuffle was prompted by her refusal to follow Trudeau’s orders. Although Wilson-Raybould noted that some discussions about ramifications are normal in important cases, the pressure here went well beyond what was appropriate (Trudeau, for his part, claims his main concern was protecting Canadian jobs – the company employs around 9000 people in the country).
There are alleged ties between SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau and some of his political pals, and the story has been framed by Canadian reporter Ezra Levant as “how Trudeau and his staff tried to get [Wilson-Raybould] to drop criminal charges against a corrupt company that he liked”. And the scandal has already been impactful – Trudeau lost his long-time friend and closest adviser Gerald Butts two weeks ago, with speculation that other named advisers will soon resign. The Treasury Board President Jane Philpott (one of the country’s top ministers) has also quit over the government’s handling of the story. She said that “I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities [and] constitutional obligations – there can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them” in a resignation seen as very highly damaging.
Openness became a big part of [Trudeau’s] brand as PM, so the scandal is threatening to do major damage to his reputation
What does the scandal mean for Trudeau? Well, he came to power four years ago promising “sunny ways” and a new era of honest, accountable government – this openness became a big part of his brand as PM, so the scandal is threatening to do major damage to his reputation and (potentially) his premiership. There’s a general election in October, and some pundits already think that the unfolding scandal will prove too much for Trudeau to overcome – the Conservative leader of the opposition Andrew Scheer has already called for Trudeau to resign, saying that he no longer has the “moral authority” to lead, and it’s likely that this issue will be key as the election approaches. If the company is indicted, it could negatively impact Quebec – the company is based there but, as a swing province that has long been viewed as essential for the Liberal Party to win during elections, political damage there could be fatal.
Wilson-Raybould has said that she doesn’t think any laws were broken, and investigation is ongoing – however, even if Trudeau and his team are found to have acted properly, the reputational damage of this story has really impacted him. Confidence in Trudeau’s leadership is plummeting, both within his party and the country, and the issue could hand control of Canada back to the Conservatives. For a man who assumed leadership on the basis of honesty and transparency, his professed principles have come back to bite him in a way that may end his political career.