Political campaigns do not occur within hermetically sealed containers and elections are never perfectly simple comparisons of leaders and platforms. Events intervene. Things come up. Choices become complicated.
So it was that Day 1 of the 43rd general election campaign began with a story from the Globe and Mail claiming that unidentified individuals were somehow limited by cabinet confidentiality in what they could say to the RCMP about the SNC-Lavalin affair. Hours later, the day ended with a report that Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney-general, spoke with the RCMP on Tuesday.
The initial report ensured that the first question Trudeau heard at Rideau Hall on Wednesday concerned the affair. The second report surely ensures that he will be asked again about the issue when he meets reporters on Thursday.
The election of 2019 will be about a great many things and many great things. And the SNC-Lavalin affair was always bound to hang over the proceedings to some degree or another. But Wednesday’s revelations leave an uncomfortably open question to linger, one that Trudeau’s rivals will no doubt be happy to exploit.
More questions raised than answered
The Globe’s stories raise more questions than are answered, particularly as it pertains to how cabinet confidence is being invoked in this case. It is unclear who is claiming that confidence, to which discussions they are applying it or even how that confidence is being defined.
According to the Globe, the RCMP has not launched an official investigation and it will suspend its initial inquiries into the matter until after the federal election.
During her committee testimony in the spring, Wilson-Raybould, now seeking election as an independent in Vancouver-Granville, said she did not believe a criminal offence had been committed. And the ethics commissioner is required by law to “immediately suspend an examination” if he “believes on reasonable grounds” that an offence has been committed. That commissioner Mario Dion completed his investigation would suggest that he did not believe any part of the affair rose to the level of a crime.
But the RCMP’s view has now been raised as an unresolved matter and, crucially, that is something that won’t be definitively resolved until sometime after October 21.
This might raise uncomfortable memories of 2006 for the Liberals, but also for the Mounties, who apparently sat down with Wilson-Raybould when an election call was imminent. But the Conservatives and New Democrats are unlikely to reserve judgment or tiptoe delicately around the legal nuances.
Trudeau’s response on Wednesday was to be as succinct as possible. “We gave out the largest and most expansive waiver of cabinet confidence in Canada’s history,” he said.
Trudeau cannot resolve that now. Even if he was persuaded to extend the waiver, the RCMP’s inquiries would presumably remain paused.
Trudeau can try to shift the subject
The Liberal leader can only insist on continuing to talk about the things he would rather talk about: the middle class, climate change, and the various things his government managed to do when it wasn’t worrying about the fate of SNC-Lavalin.
He tried to do that on Wednesday and he will try again on Thursday. If there is not another story in the Globe and Mail tomorrow or the next day, Trudeau might not be hearing questions about the SNC-Lavalin affair by the start of next week.
Insofar as these questions have already consumed some amount of precious time and headline space, this likely already registers as some kind of setback. Every campaign will be challenged with some number of intrusions — on Wednesday, reporters were also keen to hear the federal leaders comment on Quebec’s Bill 21. But some will be more bothersome than others.
The campaign will find other concerns. Other things will come up. Thursday is another day and there will be another 38 days after that.
Generally speaking, the campaign that spends the most time talking about what it wants to talk about stands the best chance of winning. The SNC-Lavalin affair might be given new life and it might now linger throughout. But if it fades from the forefront, the Liberals will have some number of days to talk about other things.