Michael Wernick also pointed out that the first person to invoke privilege to limit to her testimony was the former minister herself.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 25, 2019.
OTTAWA—Michael Wernick almost never smiles.
He is the epitome of rectitude, an example of a public servant who serves political masters with rapier logic and never meddles in politics.
The clerk of the Privy Council proved Thursday why Canadians have no need to fear an abuse of judicial due process in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Wernick was unequivocal that he had never rebuked the former attorney general, and went so far as the say the original story in The Globe, which spawned the whole feeding frenzy, was defamatory.
In the initial story, The Globe and Mail cited anonymous sources to back up the front-page story that the minister was demoted because of her refusal to approve a deferred prosecution agreement for the company. As Jody Wilson-Raybould is not speaking, it certainly seems like a one-sided narrative.
Wernick also pointed out that the first person to invoke privilege to limit to her testimony was the former minister herself.
In the House of Commons last week, in defence of her decision to abstain from a motion dealing with her situation, Wilson-Raybould continued to invoke multiple limitations on her capacity to speak.
At one point, she told the media that her role as a Member of Parliament and a caucus member also posed limitations.
Assuming that she, too, wants to clarify the situation, she should not be lawyering up on her responsibility as a Member of Parliament. Silence would be too heavy a price for her to pay.
Let’s assume that the aggrieved minister herself was one of the sources of the initial Globe and Mail tip. It seems like a fair assumption since her recent cabinet appearance was also followed by a sourced tip about how she had to wait two hours to get into the cabinet meeting.
How could it be in the interest of current cabinet members to leak the fact that the former attorney general was left cooling her heels in the hallway?
It is quite possible, and very believable, that Wilson-Raybould believes that her demotion in cabinet was caused because she resisted inappropriate pressure to rule in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement.
According to Wernick, the law itself permits all relevant parties, ministers, Members of Parliament, and public servants to be lobbied. The Lobbyist Act ensures that all those discussions are logged on a public registry. The Privy Council clerk also reminded committee members that Wilson-Raybould had multiple opportunities over a period of three months to highlight any claim of undue pressure.
To Wernick’s point, notwithstanding massive interventions from lobbyists, and two Quebec premiers, the company did not get what it wanted.
“If it’s a movie, it’s a flop,” was how Wernick succinctly summarized it.
However, if Wilson-Raybould was the source, her claims that she cannot speak to Parliament because of client confidentiality ring hollow.
If as an attorney, you cannot break privilege with your client, you surely cannot trash your client anonymously in the newspaper.
The Globe team was obviously onto a hot issue. There was plenty of smoke. The minister herself had every right to feel hurt and confused about the demotion to the ministry of veterans’ affairs and associate minister of defence.
But the story of a former attorney general being hurt by a demotion is not front-page news. An anonymous allegation of criminal interference is.
Allegations should prompt a good journalist to pursue a potentially great story. It is not a story in itself. There must be a legitimate attempt to hear the other side’s account.
The importance of Wernick’s solid rebuttal and his impartial role to advise the prime minister cannot be overstated in this unfolding drama. In his view, at no time was the former attorney general improperly pressured on the SNC-Lavalin file.
Wernick has served seven prime ministers from two parties, and multiple ministers. He also holds an impartial position, which has existed, in the British parliamentary system for 800 years.
I had the privilege of working with him when I was minister of Canadian heritage and we were negotiating an international agreement on cultural diversity at UNESCO. Our team was intensely involved in very difficult circumstances and Wernick led the team with the same cool intensity he exhibited before the justice committee last Thursday.
Wernick’s testimony went a long way in defusing anonymous claims of criminal interference. The former minister will have her day in committee next week. But questions about why the former attorney general stayed silent for three months will no doubt be on the docket.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.