OTTAWA — The Liberals used their majority Wednesday to defeat an opposition motion calling for a public inquiry into allegations that the Prime Minister's Office pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin avoid criminal prosecution.
The former attorney general herself abstained, telling the House of Commons she didn't think it appropriate to vote on a matter in which she was personally involved. And in so doing she created yet more problems for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"I understand fully that Canadians want to know the truth and want transparency," said Wilson-Raybould, who has cited solicitor-client privilege to refuse comment on the matter since the allegation from anonymous sources first surfaced two weeks ago.
"Privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth."
Her comments were greeted with applause from opposition benches and added fuel to their demands that Trudeau waive solicitor-client privilege to allow Wilson-Raybould to finally speak freely. And they prompted opposition accusations that Trudeau and his current justice minister, David Lametti, were in conflict of interest when they voted against the motion, since they too are personally involved in the controversy.
The vote came a couple of hours after Wilson-Raybould attended her first Liberal caucus meeting since the furor over SNC-Lavalin erupted, prompting her resignation from cabinet last week and the departure of Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, this week. For the most part, Liberal MPs maintained it was a good meeting.
"We had a fantastic meeting today," caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia said in an interview. "There's complete solidarity and the mood was great."
There was not, however, complete solidarity a short time later when it came to the vote on the NDP motion for a public inquiry. Two Liberal backbenchers — Toronto's Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and New Brunswick's Wayne Long — joined with opposition parties in supporting the motion. It was defeated on a vote of 160-134.
Trudeau said he took the opportunity of the caucus meeting to offer an apology to Wilson-Raybould for his failure last week to immediately denounce anonymous criticism and cartoons about her that many felt were racist and sexist.
"I want to highlight something I said at caucus this morning," Trudeau said on his way into the Commons. "I apologized to Jody Wilson-Raybould because I wasn't quick enough to condemn in unequivocal terms the comments and commentary and cartoons made about her last week. They were absolutely unacceptable and I should have done it sooner."
Earlier Wednesday, on his way into the caucus meeting, Trudeau insisted he wants a full airing of the accusation that his office pressured Wilson-Raybould to instruct the director of public prosecutions to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin — a kind of plea bargain in corporate corruption cases that forces a company to pay restitution but avoid a criminal conviction that could bankrupt it. But he said he has confidence that inquiries already begun by the federal ethics commissioner and the House of Commons justice committee can get to the bottom of the affair.
The justice committee was to have begun hearings Wednesday but that was put off until Thursday due to the unavailability of the witnesses.
The committee has agreed to eventually hear from Wilson-Raybould, likely early next week, but opposition MPs question how much she'll be able to say so long as she is still bound by solicitor-client privilege. The committee has also invited Justice Minister Lametti but he appears unlikely to be able to shed much light on the affair for the same reason.
During question period, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer peppered Trudeau with questions about the Sept. 4 refusal by the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin, which faces charges of bribery and corruption related to government contracts in Libya.
Sheer demanded to know whether Trudeau knew of Roussel's decision when he met with Wilson-Raybould on Sept. 17 and assured her it was her decision alone whether to intervene with the public prosecutor. He also wanted to know whether it was Trudeau or Wilson-Raybould who initiated that meeting. And he wanted to know whether Trudeau ever expressed a preference to Wilson-Raybould for a remediation agreement in the SNC-Lavalin case.
Trudeau did not directly respond to any of those questions, repeatedly saying that he simultaneously stood up for the jobs at stake in the SNC-Lavalin case while respecting all the laws and rules that guard against political interference in the justice system.
"This is a file that touches tens of thousands of Canadians right across the country, including 9,000 direct jobs," he told the Commons. "Of course we are going to be very careful about how we move forward in protecting those jobs but we are also going to, at the same time, make sure that we are standing up for the independence of our judicial system and all the processes that keep our democratic institutions safe."
Scheer shot back: "It is so telling that the prime minister cannot even answer this kind of simple question. These are not the actions and this is not the behaviour of someone who is innocent of what he is being accused of."
In his defence, Trudeau cited a news release issued by Roussel last week in response to suggestions of political interference in another case, involving Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
"I am confident that our prosecutors, in this and every other case, exercise their discretion independently and free from any political interference," Roussel said.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who sponsored the motion for a public inquiry, said nothing less will satisfy Canadians.
"My argument to the prime minister is come clean," he said. "Have an independent hearing that is not run by the hand-puppets of the Liberal members of the justice committee."
Angus said it is a "joke" to suggest the Liberal-dominated committee will get to the bottom of anything, particularly when it has not so far agreed to call anyone from the Prime Minister's Office to testify.
"There is a huge difference between promising to air out the dirty laundry and presenting a plan that is so full of holes that it allows Gerry Butts and the rest of the people involved to walk away without coming clean," Angus said.
—with files from Terry Pedwell
Joan Bryden and Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press