Listen Up! Some advice I would give Trudeau if, by some act of God, I was working for him

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

There hasn’t been much in the news this week other than the so called SNC Scandal. I was  going to avoid it, but I have a viewpoint which is somewhat different than those that have been expressed, including those who have written on Doppler. I don’t see this as a black or white issue and I think it should be much more about lessons learned, than seeing (with one exception) how many heads can roll.

At the outset, I must disclose that many years ago, as a Government Relations and Communications Consultant, SNC-Lavalin was a client of mine. All of the senior people at SNC, that my firm worked with at the time, are gone now and have been for some years. They were honorable people with whom I enjoyed working and there was never a time when what they asked from us was inappropriate. Sometimes it was a way out of the box, but never out of line. Had that happened, they would not have been a client.

So I have decided to look at this whole schmozzle from the viewpoint of someone who spent much of his career in Government Relations which often ends up as crisis management, sometimes for the client and sometimes for the Government. As an overview, I think this one is a complete screw-up, for both SNC and the Government. If there was Communications Strategy in place, it was a terrible one.  If there wasn’t, they were all simply sitting on a time bomb.

Let’s deal first with SNC-Lavalin. I remember years ago, when Joe Clarke was running against Brian Mulroney for the leadership of the Federal Conservative Party. It was the one he did not win. Both were fighting desperately for delegates from Quebec to the Tory Leadership Convention. Mulroney supporters were caught red-handed lining busses up at legions and suchlike, buying the guys a beer, maybe a little cash changing hands and putting them on the bus to go and nominate Mulroney delegates. The Media thought the Clarke Camp would go nuts over this, but this was Joe Clarke’s response. “Two things”, he said, “this is a leadership race and not a tea party, and second, this is Quebec.”

The point being that Quebec industries and institutions often see things differently and do things differently from a cultural perspective. This applies to how they do business, how they treat government and how they approach politics. It’s just the way it is. You have to know that when you deal with them. This does not mean that they act illegally or engage in corruption. It does however result in a more aggressive approach to both business, politics and Government. When this crosses the line of acceptable behaviour in a country where the rule of law is sacrosanct, prosecution is not only warranted, it is necessary.

It is too late for SNC-Lavalin to get an agreement to defer prosecution and under current circumstances they should not get it. To do that the Government would have to intervene again and that would, in my view, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Whether or not the Prosecutor involved made the right decision, it is now a moot point and the Attorney General could only overturn the decision subject to certain conditions, which in her view, did not exist. SNC will have to go to Court and if convicted of corruption, under current law, will not be allowed to bid on government contracts in Canada for ten years. Now therein lies the rub.

I have some sympathy for the quandary SNC finds itself in. They do play a significant role in Canada’s economy. I am not sure that it is in the public interest that they be crippled to a point that they cannot continue to do so. The Government in my view, has a right to be concerned.

The answer, I think, is to change the law. Governments and Parliaments create law but they cannot and should not administer it and that is what has caused the problem here. Instead of trying to influence the legal process the Government is right to consider amending the law restricting companies convicted of a criminal offence from bidding on Government contracts under any circumstances. Guidelines and oversight need to be strict, but punishments should fit the crime and not unduly weaken a market-driven economy.

And now some advice I would give Prime Minister Trudeau if, by some act of God, I was working for him.  He would fire me of course. I am well out of the game now, but when I was in it, I always believed my job was to tell clients what I believe they needed to hear and not necessarily what they wanted to hear. This is what I would say.

  • Apologize for stepping over the line. You acknowledge that you asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould to reconsider a legal decision she made. That is interfering with the administration of justice and that is wrong. Let this be a teaching moment. Just apologize. You know how to do that. Canadians expect it and they will judge you less harshly.
  • Go and put your arms around Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. Make them genuinely welcome in your Caucus.  Thank them for doing what you asked them to do. Remember you recruited women like this, who were not necessarily partisan, who were not part of the old boy’s political or discipline structure and whom you wanted to stand out and make a difference and to show that the old ways are not the new ways.
  • Fire Michael Wernick and tell him not to let the door hit him on the ass on the way out. He crossed the biggest line of all by politicising the Public Service. We all know there is some of that but the separation of duties between the PMO and the Civil Service is an important one. As its head, he destroyed that through his actions in recent months. He is clearly a partisan and a crybaby. He has lost any credibility as a neutral civil servant. Get him out of there. If Canadians really want someone’s head over all of this, they may well settle for his.
  • Tell people like Sheila Copps and Christy Clark to shut their mouths.  They are not helping. They are hurting you.  While you are at it, call off your caucus supporters who are flooding Twitter with mimeographed love notes. That is not helping you either.
  • Finally, Mr. Prime Minister, change the law. Make it possible for companies who play a significant role in our economy, but are guilty of limited criminal activity, to continue to contribute to Canada. Make it hard and make it conditional but make it possible. Given the current circumstances and the mismanagement of the issue, it is in the public interest to get this done and get on with life. You can do that. You are the Prime Minister. The Opposition may well yell and scream but it is the right thing for Canada and this is the right way to do it.

So that’s my take on the SNC Lavalin/Government crisis. Hopefully I have said enough that there is something  everyone can disagree with!

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7 Comments

  1. Henk Rietveld on

    Thanks, Hugh, for a well balanced view of this mess. Well said, let’s hope the powers that be get your message..

  2. Hugh Holland on

    May be a good way to resolve this complicated issue. It sets the example of punishing SNC for its past sins, but lets this company continue to play its important role in our economy, and leaves the DPA procedure in place, with some experience, for the next company, wherever they may be.

  3. Jim Logagianes on

    Avoid Federal Prosecution In Canada. 1-800-TRUDEAU
    Apply for your DPA Today.
    All Cheques should be made out to the Liberal Party of Canada.
    As Lorrie Goldstein of the Toronto Sun pointed out in a recent article, there is now one law for SNC Lavalin and another for the rest of Canada.
    This sordid affair is not about jobs it is about political interference in a Federal Prosecution which is Illegal.
    SNC expensed the Prostitutes cost they hired for Ghadaffis son and left a paper trail.
    Ottawa has become an overpriced dysfunctional entity with no moral compass and we all have to pay for it.

  4. I understand but can’t agree with what you are suggesting Hugh.
    There have been several media published lists of the bribery and other chicanery committed by SNCL over the years. It is a long list and shocking the the average Canadian I believe. You are correct about one thing at least and that is your observation that things are done differently in Quebec. There is no doubt that bribery in business is endemic in Quebec and yes it aseems to be cultural not incidental.
    My difference with you seems to be my belief that the rest of Canada should not accommodate and reward it by changing a law designed to punish such corruption. Even if ( when ) SNCL is found guilty they will not go out of business or move their headquarters. Those claims are all tactical and false. Their shareholders have benifited by the corporate corruption etc and too bad so sad if now they suffer a bit. That is life in the fast lane. Same thing with employees many of whom would be inocent of actual participatipn in the decision making to break the law perhaps. However many would be quite aware of the prevailing corporate culture and willing to enjoy the good pay and benifits available in such an organization.
    SNCL were caught red handed making illegal payments to the Liberals quite recently. There were reported bribes during the bidding process on the Champlain Bridge now under construction. The new mega hospital in Montreal is another example of corrupt practices. Scandal after scandal and we should tolerate the changing of the law to reward all this ?
    Sorry Hugh, IMO heads should roll and the PM shpuld resign. Every time these things are swept under the carpet the public gets a bit more cynical and trusts the system a bit less. Rightfully so. It has to stop and now is a good time to begin.
    SNCL must be procecuted and Trudeau and the Liberals need a huge lesson.

  5. I am very confused, Hugh, as is my wont. Such a law already exists (I believe that it was contained in the same omnibus bill, in which we found the DPA). Regardless, the government may reduce that 10-year ban to whatever penalty they find acceptable (even zero). I apologize if I am incorrect; being both excessively steeped in this case, and excessively advanced in years, is not the potent combination I would like sometimes.

  6. Hugh, nice piece. I agree with everything except your last recommendation, to change the law. That was perhaps an option last fall, but I think that ship has now sailed. The PM’s handling of this affair has now attracted the OECD’s attention, warning Canada as a signatory to its anit-corruption convention, its watching … with a reminder that “prosecutorial independence in foreign bribery cases” and that political factors — such as national economic interests and the identities of the company or individuals involved — should have no influence on the prosecution” Sounds a lot like the wording in our current DPA law.

    The last remaining option may be to quietly finish changes to the Integrity Regime, giving the government more flexibility in applying federal contract bans. But even that, given everyone watching and the optics involved, will be difficult to pull-off without political consequences (i.e. its only being done to benefit SNC).

    It’s too late for a PM apologize, he’s in too deep. Justin Trudeau has painted his government into a corner … looks like it will be up to Canadians in the fall to judge his actions. That’s the Canadian democratic system working as it should… the people get the final say.

  7. With respect, Hugh, I would add an addendum to your column: The government is now considering new legislation to possibly temper the severity of a 10-year ban. This law would allow a PUBLIC SERVANT, The Registrar of Ineligibility and Suspension, to reduce/eliminate the ban on bidding on federal contracts. Do you think that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was the subject of “veiled” threats? Stay tuned. It’s faintly possible that the worst is yet to come.

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