Friday, 8 March 2019

Oh Canada

This week's column in the Initiative's newsletter covers the latest Canadian scandal.
Oh Canada

Partisanship is a powerful and deadly drug. Canada is the latest in a too-lengthy list of places badly in need of rehab.

In response to harsh criticism of his involvement in and handling of a corruption scandal, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his Party’s supporters this week that his policy agenda is too important to risk.

Canadian political parties have been too quick to identify the good of the party with the good of the country. As Canadian columnist Paul Wells put it, “a country gets into trouble when it turns every question into an electoral question.”

So what happened?

Last week, Judy Wilson-Raybould, Mr Trudeau’s former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, testified that the Liberal Party hierarchy, from the Prime Minister down, pressured her to go easy on politically powerful Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

Facing Canadian prosecution for bribery in Libya, SNC-Lavalin threatened to shift its headquarters out of Quebec. With a Quebec election in the offing and a federal election to come, the loss of a corporate headquarters and associated jobs was too great a political threat. So the Liberals’ enforcers strongly suggested that the Attorney-General enter into a more accommodating arrangement with the firm.

This week, a second cabinet minister stepped down over the same issue, saying she could not defend the Cabinet’s decisions as required under Cabinet responsibility without compromising herself, or the constitution.

On Monday, Prime Minister Trudeau noted that he regretted her decision, that his government was thinking hard about the SNC-Lavalin case, but that it is vitally important to the national interest that the Liberals be re-elected.

In short, good Liberals should be happy to sweep the matter under the carpet to avoid letting the Conservative Party win the coming election.

No price of power is too high to pay if you have convinced yourself that the entire fate of the country is at stake. What is a little erosion of constitutional norms and the rule of law if the nation hangs in the balance?

The question should really be reversed: what is the nation if its political elite quietly condones gross impropriety in pursuit of partisan interest?

We in New Zealand are fortunate that nobody can credibly pretend that a change in government portends the end of days.

But it is up to all of us never to allow our politicians to let partisan electoral ends justify questionable policy means. 
It has long been considered racist, or at best impolite, for those outside of Quebec to point to the obvious corruption problems in Quebec.

During the sponsorship scandal of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chretien's Liberal government broke standard financial administration rules to funnel money to parts of Quebec at risk of voting for independence. The fall of Paul Martin's Liberal government and three fraud cases ultimately followed.

Maybe you could have then claimed that the country really was at stake.

But that doesn't explain the 2008 Conservative-led prorogation crisis, in which Harper prorogued Parliament to delay a confidence vote, or Paul Martin's 2005 trick in delaying a confidence vote to give give himself enough time to buy a floor-crosser with a Cabinet slot.

America's in far worse shape, sure. But everybody needs to be on guard.

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