Saying sorry is about as Canadian as poutine and maple syrup — except, it seems, when it comes to politicians apologizing for themselves.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been under renewed pressure to apologize after Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion ruled last week he broke the Conflict of Interest Act by repeatedly and improperly pressuring the former attorney general to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin criminal case.
But despite claiming to take “full responsibility” for the wrongdoings outlined in the report, Trudeau has repeatedly refused to apologize.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Barry McLoughlin, president of the crisis communications firm McLoughlin Media, said he thinks that could lead to swing voters viewing him as disingenuous, especially given Trudeau’s track record of issuing formal apologies for things other people did.
“He apologizes profusely for all previous governments and all the actions against all kinds of people. He knows how to do that — the tears come and he chokes up and obviously that was emotion, I don’t think that was acting,” said McLaughlin.
“But for some reason for his own personal conduct, he refuses to do so. I think he sees it as damaging his own brand.”
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said she views the report release as a potential stall on the momentum the Liberals have garnered since the SNC-Lavalin scandal sent their poll numbers tumbling earlier this year — but cautioned it’s too early to predict what the impact will be.
“The key now is what happens to left-of-centre voters who are feeling disillusioned with the Liberals,” she said. “Are they going to come back? Are they going to stay home? Are they going to vote NDP or Green? And so that really is the X factor with this scandal.”
David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said the damage to Trudeau’s brand could pose a challenge to his bid to get progressive voters to show up at the polls.
“Progressive voters, you know, they need to really be inspired. They need to love or like the choices they have. They’re not often just driven by fear alone,” he said. “What it did to Justin Trudeau’s brand was I think it just brought him down to the same level as everybody else.”
McLoughlin said another factor that could be weighing on the refusal is concern about any potential legal culpability if there were to be a criminal investigation.
“The legal filter on that is certainly one factor because they think it’s an admission of something that could have tangible concern about a legal basis,” he said, noting he has worked with other political leaders in the past whose lawyers have advised them not to apologize during scandals.
“So that may be one aspect.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called last week for a criminal investigation into whether Trudeau’s interference amounted to an attempt to obstruct justice.
Dion determined in his report that Trudeau and his senior staff engaged in a pressure campaign to try to get Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general, to change her mind against overriding the director of public prosecutions, who had chosen not to offer SNC-Lavalin an untested new mechanism for escaping criminal trial on the charges it faces of allegedly bribing Libyan officials to get contracts.
Trudeau and his government changed the law last year after heavy lobbying from SNC-Lavalin to create what’s called a deferred prosecution agreement regime.
While such regimes exist in other countries, they have never before been used in Canada.
Inviting SNC-Lavalin to negotiate one would have effectively set precedent for how future decisions are handled, and there have been questions raised since the SNC-Lavalin scandal emerged in February about whether the firm actually qualified, given the regime bars consideration of the “national economic interest.”
Trudeau has insisted jobs were at stake if the company were to be prosecuted and that he won’t apologize for acting in what he has described as the public interest to protect those jobs.
Dion though said if there was any public interest in helping the firm avoid a criminal trial, it was so closely tied to the company’s own private financial interests that any advocacy on the part of Trudeau and his staff crossed the line.
Members of the House of Commons ethics committee are set to meet on Wednesday to consider an attempt by Conservatives and NDP to call Dion to testify.
McLoughlin said he doubts the Liberals, with the majority of seats on that committee, will let that happen.
He drew a parallel to how Republican congressional representatives south of the border tried to prevent and block efforts to bring former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who had investigated allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, to testify about his report before committee.
“We were all high and mighty here in Canada when the Mueller report came out and all the jockeying by the Trump administration around not cooperating with congressional testimony around the Mueller report,” McLoughlin said.
“But in a way, we’re kind of moving into that here.”
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