Voters have their minds made up on SNC, with or without Dion’s report

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Most Canadians have tuned out, and things are still looking up for the Liberals in Quebec.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 19, 2019.

The gift that keeps on giving.

Opposition parties are salivating at the summer fallout from the damning ethic commissioner‘s report into the prime minister’s actions in support of SNC-Lavalin’s pursuit of a deferred prosecution agreement.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer both pounced on the findings, with Singh suggesting the prime minister was unfit to govern. Scheer was more circumspect, calling on voters to issue their verdict on election day. Both leaders are hoping a recent uptick in Liberal support will be blunted by Commissioner Mario Dion’s findings.

They are also calling for further parliamentary and police investigation with the hopes of making this the central issue in the upcoming campaign. Voters, tired of the issue, may well have something else in mind.

Liberals are banking on the fact that the dog days of summer will swallow the story whole, so it will not play a major role in voter decision-making in the upcoming election. They have a couple of elements operating in their favour.

Most Canadians are not following the minutiae of life on Parliament Hill. Although they understand the broad strokes of the story, the differing, complicated versions of it work in the Liberals’ favour.

For many, it has become a “she said, he said” narrative with people already rendering their own judgements months ago. The complexity of competing legal arguments is white noise to all but the most devoted of political junkies. Most Canadians have tuned out.

There is also a serious flaw in the Dion report that some legal scholars contested last week. Dion concluded the prime minister was not acting in the public interest when he encouraged the attorney general to review the case against SNC-Lavalin. Instead, he found that Trudeau’s interventions were intended to serve the private interest of SNC-Lavalin.

The commissioner claimed that contact would have been permissible to act in the public interest, and this is where he and the prime minister part company. Trudeau continued to defend his view that the government’s only intention was to protect the jobs and pensions of people who had no involvement in decade-old criminal activity in Libya. “I am not going to apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs,” Trudeau repeated multiple times.

However, the prime minister also said that he accepted the report coming from an officer of Parliament, and he took full responsibility for his actions.

Trudeau’s viewpoint was endorsed by at least two high-profile newspapers, The Toronto Star and Le Devoir. Both took the view that Liberals were acting in the public interest, not in violation of private interests. They also criticized the commissioner’s report for wrongly interpreting the law.

Obviously, when politicians make decisions in the public interest, they make those decisions in the context of politics.

At the end of the day, most Canadians will never even read the report. They may reflect briefly on its conclusions, but for the most part, their minds were already made up months ago. And they are tired of the repetitious story line, which has not changed.

Voters make political decisions based on how government policies affect them directly.

Last week, I was visiting Newfoundland. At a kitchen party, I bumped into an SNC-Lavalin engineer who was among the 5,000 Canadian employees outside the province of Quebec.

Along with 4,000 Quebec-based employees, they will likely be voting for the Liberals as the party best placed to protect their jobs.

Even as Conservatives attacked Trudeau, they were silent on the use of a deferred prosecution agreement. An attack on the company will not help their electoral interests, especially in Quebec.

The inflamed rhetoric of Singh is damaging his own party’s re-election prospects in Quebec. He keeps trying to drive a wedge between his party’s socialist purity and the ugly capitalism of his opponents. It is not working. Recent polls show the New Democrats with modest support in Quebec. Unless those numbers change drastically, they will lose all their 16 seats. The hill Singh must climb is steep.

The party best positioned to win NDP seats in Quebec is the Liberal Party.

And even though the commissioner’s report last week was a body blow, the Grits likely have enough positive things going for them to weather this continuing storm.

While the opposition wants to keep the story alive, most Canadians may have already tuned out.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.