Why the SNC-Lavalin affair is particularly hard to swallow in Western Canada
There’s an element of this SNC-Lavalin affair which has been obscured by the sheer political drama of the personalities involved, and by the intense media back and forth between its various factions and perspectives.
It is not sufficiently held in mind that one effect of “news” is that it blocks out news. Stories don’t simply die, the issues involved in them remain active, even though they get shuffled off the front page or, perhaps more properly described, shuffled under other, fresher stories.
SNC-Lavalin, involving a clash between the highest powers of government – the Prime Minister and at least two of his senior ministers, and entailing a great constitutional principle – the rule of law, very naturally has commanded all the past month’s coverage. But the element I wish to highlight, though a sideline to this particular news story, actually relates to an issue that is more sustained than the clash itself, and to a question that has been troubling the country at least since the government of Justin Trudeau succeeded that of Stephen Harper.
The longest-running active issue of the last three years is the continuing crisis in Canada’s energy industry. A central contributor to Canada’s economic strength has been placed in a kind of political and policy limbo, great sums of capital have either been left idle or departed the country, many thousands of jobs have been lost – or not set in motion – because of the unsettled question of how to get (mainly) Alberta oil, out of Alberta and to some other nation than the United States.
The pipeline issue, and its economic import, is, I repeat, the most sustained and economically consequential issue of the present time.
It is composed of several elements, of which I’ll catalogue a few.
British Columbia and Alberta have been energetically at odds with each other over the pipeline debate. The political tensions between the two provinces have rarely been as heated. There is real grievance felt in both provinces, and in Alberta deep anger and frustration.
Quebec’s dismissal of Alberta’s wish to get its oil to the east coast, its almost haughty rejection of the very idea of a national pipeline, even as it receives oil, by tanker, from out of country is a second strand of discord and some resentment.
The frustration and anger out west, of seeing its economy held hostage, harassment from professional anti-oil lobbies, cancellations and deferments of projects, delays with repeated appeals to the courts, has never been stronger, surpassing in my view even the disenchantment and alienation during the days of the National Energy Board and (ironically) the previous Trudeau government.
We have here a combination of effects, that in their scale are a potential hazard to the equilibrium of the country, and therefore should have been, and be, of foremost concern to the national government.
How long can this simmering turbulence be ignored or passed by, before there are consequences for the whole country, both economic and political? In sum, the fight over natural resources is stirring profound strains within Confederation itself. And yet for the majority of the present government’s mandate, the issue received but glancing or rote attention from Ottawa
Then, if I may be colloquial, along comes SNC-Lavalin, and Jody Wilson-Raybould’s demotion and subsequent resignation from the Trudeau cabinet. It is instructive to contrast Ottawa’s dealings or attempted dealings with SNC-Lavalin with its responses or non-response to the more protracted and consequential problems in the oil industry.
For what do those involved in the energy and other extractive industries see in the Lavalin affair? Primarily they see that a “one company” crisis, with a comparatively small economic footprint – compared to the entire energy industry – has absorbed the most ferocious attention of the most powerful players in all Canadian government.
The background story to SNC-Lavalin has the Prime Minister himself, his chief advisor and mentor Gerald Butts, his chief communications officer, the highest civil servant in the land – the Clerk of the Privy Council, and horde of aides, lobbyists and other backroom players, in a frenzy to protect – even to the point of pressuring the First Law Office of the land, the Attorney General, to bend the rules, find a fix, work around for a favoured client company in Quebec.
Mr. Trudeau’s government has not been without its controversies. From the abandonment of electoral reform to the comedic costume tour of India, it had its hard moments. But no issue, no broken promise has hit it with the power of its apparent attempts to circumvent the rule of law and, for partisan/political advantage, pressure the Attorney General.
It hit them everywhere it hurt. Two of its most high profile female ministers have resigned on principle. The Liberal ‘brand’ on its central pretensions – feminism, openness, bring a “new style” of politics, its virtue-signalling on identity – have been ravaged by the issue.
Mr. Trudeau’s popularity has been more than threatened, the party is down in the polls, and what looked like an easy glide in the election to be held this fall, is now more than problematic.
In the midst of this crisis, at their worst moment since taking office, what line, finally, does the government take while trying to defend the indefensible? Let me start a new paragraph.
That’s right, Jobs. We have been suffocated for the last three weeks or so with their new pseudo-slogan: “this government will always value jobs and respect for the rule of law.” The line goes on – we only did, what we did, if we did it, because there were 9,000 jobs at stake if SNC-Lavalin faced criminal prosecution. (Never mind that the 9,000 figure has been deeply discounted.)
When the Trudeau government found itself in a really hard place and had to find what they saw as a bullet-proof excuse or rationale – they reached for the one argument the thought could pass muster: they were protecting jobs.
The irony here, the discrepancy between their response to the devastation of the Canadian energy industry, and a perceived threat to one company (with an extremely dubious record) in Quebec, is massive. And so it was noted. A comparatively few jobs in one region and the full power and machinery of the Canadian government goes into high gear, and potentially even illegal behaviour, while a continuous, far more extensive economic crisis, gets virtually ignored.
The Trudeau government could not have conceived a stronger way to further inflame the angers and divisions its treatment of Alberta and the western economy has stimulated than picking “jobs” as their line of defense in the SNC-Lavalin affair. Where was this now holy concern for jobs when pipelines were being obstructed, new regulations imposed, capital fleeing, headquarters moving, workers from all over Canada pushed from their employment? The gratuity of their defence is offensive. The Trudeau government finally elevated “jobs” as a concern but only when it works as a cover for their own difficulties in the SNC-Lavalin affair?
It was politically outrageous. It was the exact opposite to their obsessional Greenism, their fantasy of global leadership on a problem that has no relationship to the scale of Canada’s influence.
They have had three full years to shout “Jobs,” three whole years to unpack and reduce the strangulating regulations, three years to work some compromise with British Columbia, three years to harken to the thousands and thousands who have been out of work since the oilsands have been hit with the drop in world prices, three years to fight back against the zealous environmentalist lobby that has been blackening the reputation of Canadian energy around the world — three years, in other words to stand up for Jobs — and Nothing.
But when the government itself falls into political crisis, when Mr. Trudeau’s standing a popularity are at stake, amazingly then they are all about jobs.
It won’t do. It is not only the energy industry that has felt the neglect, even hostility, to its growth. There is hardly any area of our national resources in general that have not been faced – at a lower intensity – with the same challenges. The strident, ideological commitment to Greenism has been at the price of sane industrial policy. While chasing international applause for their sanctified war on “global warming,” posing at Davos and IPCC talkfests, and preening on the home front over their environmental connections, they have refused to defend, certainly to encourage, the very source of Canada’s real economic strength.
SNC-Lavalin is instructive on many levels. If, ironically or otherwise, it actually woke up government to the real significance of the natural resources economy, and diverts it from its hollow fascination with hard line environmentalism, it may prove of some lasting value.
Rex Murphy has been one of Canada’s most familiar, trusted, and insightful political commentators since the 1970s.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Murphy built a reputation as a quick-witted broadcaster and reporter in his native Newfoundland, and later throughout Canada on CBC’s The National and host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup.