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Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have been tossed from the Liberal Party’s national caucus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told party faithful and media on Parliament Hill at around 6:15pm EST.
“It’s become clear that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott can no longer remain part of our Liberal team,” said Trudeau. “If they can’t ultimately say they have confidence in this team … then they cannot be part of this team.”
In a tweet just before Trudeau made the announcement, Wilson-Raybould took to social media to say that she had been kicked out of caucus.
Both excommunicated Liberal MPs – former attorney general Wilson-Raybould, and former Treasury Board president Philpott – previously resigned from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio and stated publicly that they had lost confidence in the government.
During Wilson-Raybould’s explosive testimony to the Justice committee in February, she implicated key figures in Trudeau’s PMO and the PM himself for pressuring her to divert SNC-Lavalin’s criminal trial for bribery and corruption charges, suggesting it was crucial for election success; particularly Québec’s provincial election the Liberals lost in October, and the looming federal election this year.
But according to Trudeau, it wasn’t Wilson-Raybould’s testimony he took particular umbrage with, rather her recording of a telephone call with Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick that was released on Friday.
“If a politician secretly records a conversation with anyone, it is wrong. When that politican is a cabinet minister secretly recording a public servant, it is wrong,” said Trudeau. “And when that minister is the Attorney General of Canada, secretly recording the Clerk of the Privy Council, it’s unconscionable.”
Trudeau told his national caucus that government unity is paramount going into the next election and the reason he expelled the dissenters, warning that “civil wars within parties are incredibly damaging because they signal to Canadians that we care more about ourselves.”
“This is what’s on the line. Our government has made tremendous progress over the last few years, for seniors, for families, for students, for newcomers,” said Trudeau. “And we have always, always fought to create and protect jobs and we will never break that promise.”
As the Prime Minister received a standing ovation for this stance, some pundits, opposition MPs, and even Wilson-Raybould herself insist the credibility of the country’s rule of law is on the line if the government goes easy on SNC-Lavalin in such public fashion and would mar Canadians’ confidence in the fairness of their justice system.
According to testimony and previous public statements from Trudeau, Wernick, and his former principal secretary Gerald Butts – the latter pair who have also resigned over the scandal – 9000 SNC jobs could be at risk if the company is convicted of the charges.
During the stilted and at times tense, taped conversation between the former Attorney General and the nation’s top civil servant, there appears a great divide between interlocutors on the legitimacy of Wilson-Raybould’s “interfering” in the company’s criminal trial.
Wilson-Raybould: “Does [Trudeau] understand the gravity of what this potentially could mean? This is not just about saving jobs, this is about interfering with one of our fundamental institutions. This is like breaching a constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence.”
Wernick: “I don’t think he sees it as that.”
Wilson-Raybould: “Well then nobody’s explaining that to him Michael!”
During Wilson-Raybould’s near four-hours of testimony to the Justice committee, she made specific reference to former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s disastrous Watergate scandal, comparing her situation to the “Saturday Night Massacre”, a portent for events that would follow.
During the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Richardson refused and resigned, effective immediately.
But Nixon did not stop there. He followed his first order up by instructing Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox.
He also refused and resigned.
The stubborn man he was, Nixon then ordered the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox.
As they say, the third time’s the charm, and Bork agreed to Nixon’s demand. However, subsequent negative public reaction was swift and so intense that a new special counsel was appointed within eleven days – ten days later the courts ruled that the dismissal had been illegal.
But it’s unlikely more Liberals are in the firing line or will put themselves in Trudeau’s crosshairs by breaking ranks, or that the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin matter will get scrutiny from law enforcement beyond the current criminal prosecution. SNC-Lavalin is accused of bribing Libyan officials nearly $50 million to secure valuable contracts in the war-torn country.
In fact, Québec Liberal MP and lawyer David Lametti was tapped to replace Wilson-Raybould and Lametti has not ruled out a deferred prosecution agreement to divert SNC-Lavalin’s trial to remediation. Such remediation would entail a guilty plea by the company, fines and potential integrity audits as ordered by the prosecutor. If convicted at trial, the company would face a 10-year ban on bidding for federal contracts.
In addition to Wilson-Raybould’s and Philpott’s banishment from the Liberal fold, either will be able to seek re-election under the party banner in this year’s federal election.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.
– with files from Ali S. Taghva