The SNC-Lavalin cloud over the 2019 budget

On Saturday, March 23rd, 2019 in Articles by Elizabeth

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, the 2019 budget was all about spin.

From the viewpoint of the Liberals, the main focus of this budget was not fiscal; it was political. They desperately want to divert attention from whatever the SNC Lavalin turmoil and the loss of two strong Cabinet ministers might communicate to Canadians.

For the Conservatives, with equal determination and less emotional control, they want to increase public dissatisfaction with whatever the prime minister may, or may not, be hiding.

For Jagmeet Singh, he needed to be noticed.

Budgets ceased to be primarily about sound management of the country’s finances a long time ago. Our former Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has lamented that the foundational principle that parliament controls the public purse is an anachronism. Parliamentarians never see budget details before the budget is passed, which in a majority parliament is a rubber-stamping of decisions taken elsewhere. While hardly a novel observation, the standards of budgetary information continue to slide. We really should call it The Big Fat Spring Brochure.

In 2019, the stakes are particularly high for the largest two political parties. With a fall election looming, everything matters with hyper-partisan intensity.

The Conservatives under Andrew Scheer’s leadership have been running behind, even though the Liberals’ brand has been tarnished. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s failure to keep his nearest leadership race rival, Maxime Bernier, inside the Conservative party has opened up a split in the right-wing vote.

The SNC-Lavalin matter has given Andrew Scheer his first sense of blood in the water. Scheer’s message is that Justin Trudeau is corrupt, is muzzling his former attorney general, and should be removed from office without benefit of election.

It is hard to know what the public actually makes of the furour. Through the first two weeks of March, by rail and bus, I held open town halls from British Columbia to Manitoba, listening to public concerns in a dozen towns and cities from Ashcroft, BC (population 1400) to Calgary and Winnipeg. With over an hour and a half to raise issues, in all those sessions only one question pertained to SNC Lavalin. Sure, people wanted to ask me over coffee what I thought of all the drama. My sense is that Canadians are riveted by the relationship issues, like a soap opera. But it is not a scandal that matters in the sense it could affect their vote.

For my part, the SNC Lavalin affair really does matter, but not in the way Scheer thinks it does. It matters to uncover exactly how much a large multinational, whether based in Canada or not, is able to pull the strings. Leaning on our attorney general was massively inappropriate. We may yet discover that it was criminal, if it meets the standard of obstruction of justice. Of course, Jody Wilson-Raybould did not allow the pressure to lead her into error.  She ensured the prosecutor, Kathleen Roussel, director of public prosecutions, was insulated from most, but not all, of the pressure.

It matters to know how much of this would have been any different under Stephen Harper. Not a bit, I would wager, except that Harper would have more effectively done SNC Lavalin’s bidding without anyone being the wiser. Harper would never have put an independent person, willing to place personal integrity above political ambition, in his cabinet. Only Michael Chong has that distinction and he didn’t last long. It is the culture of the inner bureaucracy and political elites that matters. I remain unconvinced that Trudeau was calling the shots. It is a complicated tale of an attempt to avoid a trial for serious corruption. It must be heard in open court.

Meanwhile, Scheer’s reactions have been over the top. He is desperate to keep the SNC Lavalin matter front and centre. As leader of another political party, and as a parliamentarian who loves and respects our traditions, I think Scheer has appeared a little too desperate. It is certainly appalling that someone who once held the role of Speaker of the House of Commons is so willing to smash codes of conduct through flagrant contempt for our rules. The banging of desks and shouting through the Finance Minister’s attempts to belatedly read the budget speech, having tabled it through a hit-and-run point of order, was a serious violation. If Conservatives were to form government, what would the next Official Opposition find a step too far once such mob-like conduct had been advanced by Scheer?

During moments of the all-night voting protests of budget week, I became more deeply concerned than ever in the loss of civility. Even the melee that unfolded in May 2016, when NDP members blocked the aisle to prevent the house leaders from reaching the speaker to start the vote, was not as unnerving as the flashing of hatreds and shouting of March 21, 2019. I had a flash of worry that we would see fisticuffs like the Italian or South Korean parliaments. We need to pull back and ensure our children can watch parliamentary proceedings without shame.

Still, the Liberals have courted protest. It was quite wrong to shut down the justice committee investigation without allowing Jody Wilson-Raybould the opportunity to completely address the issues of concern. I am in total sympathy with the Conservatives’ goals, as is the NDP. We just dislike the tactics.

The budget does need a serious analysis. It is a pre-election budget with the traditional “something for everyone.” Every interest group will find a measure long advocated. For students: a reduction in the interest rate for student loans. For those clamouring for universal pharmacare: the beginnings of something that might get there. For first time home buyers: a partnership-subsidy on the down payment through CMHC. For pensioners: a vague promise to protect pension rights in bankruptcy. For veterans: a step toward removing the clause in the Superannuation Act that denies survivor benefits to people who marry after age 60. On climate: measures that were popular under former Prime Minister Paul Martin, ignored by the Trudeau Liberals since gaining power in 2015, such as rebates for the purchase of electric vehicles and eco-energy retrofits for homes. This commitment is particularly weird. It is a one-time only $1 billion for energy efficiency delivered through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — which runs out at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year. These good policies require multi-year stable funding as well as a serious expansion of reach.

The limitations on the pretty package are transparent. Most of the measures, including the $2.2 billion gas tax transfer to municipalities, require legislative changes. The budget requires 35 separate pieces of legislation before implementation. Given that parliament has not yet seen these at first reading, getting them through House and Senate before the end of June is highly unlikely.  The warm and friendly measures are then held hostage, pending Liberals being re-elected.

The best of the climate measures are still woefully short of what is urgently required for Canada to begin to do our fair share of the heavy lifting to ensure the survival of human civilization. Our target for GHG emissions remains unchanged from Harper’s target. It is the weakest in the industrialized world. Even the United States under Trump is reducing emissions faster than we are. Humanity is on a collective path to extinction. Canada could still play a role of global leadership, but we have abdicated responsibility, if not rhetoric.

And so, I look forward to the 2019 election. Green MPs, ethical and hard-working, are collaborative. My hope is for a minority Parliament that brings out the best in all of us. A girl can dream, can’t she?

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