Written by Ian Austen
After promising an open and collaborative way of doing politics, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Tuesday axed from his party two prominent female former Cabinet ministers who have been at the centre of a festering political crisis about his handling of a criminal case.
Trying to divert the country’s attention from the controversy, Trudeau was in a tough spot politically.
The two women were seen by many as symbols of his progressive feminist government. But within his Liberal Party, they were seen as untrustworthy backstabbers who kept the firestorm alive for weeks with new morsels of information feasted upon by the press and opposition parties. The problems began two months ago when accusations surfaced that Trudeau and his aides inappropriately pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general, to settle a criminal corruption case against SNC-Lavalin, a major corporation based in Montreal. A criminal conviction would bar the company from government contracts for a decade.
Trudeau has denied that anything inappropriate took place. He said he proposed a civil resolution of the case, with a monetary penalty, because a loss of government contracts by SNC-Lavalin would jeopardize thousands of Canadian jobs.
Still, the criminal prosecution has continued.
And since then, the standing of the Liberals has fallen in the polls. And Trudeau’s image as a fresh force who practised politics in a new and transparent way has been severely battered.
With their re-election hopes dimming less than seven months before the national vote, several Liberal members of Parliament have openly expressed frustration with Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from the Cabinet on Feb. 12, and with Jane Philpott, who was president of the Treasury Board and later resigned in solidarity with her.
“It’s become clear that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott can no longer remain part of our Liberal team,” Trudeau told an emergency meeting of the Liberal members of Parliament Tuesday evening. “Our political opponents win when Liberals are divided. We cannot afford to make that mistake.”
He added, “In learning to do things and doing them differently, we’ve encountered difficult moments.”
Wilson-Raybould said on Facebook on Tuesday night that she will speak with her supporters about what to do next.
“I did what I was required to do and what needed to be done based on principles & values that must always transcend party,” she wrote.
In a separate Facebook message posted Monday night, Philpott expressed dismay about not being able to make her case to the national caucus before she was exiled from it.
“The need has never been greater for a measured re-evaluation of how the government should respond to this issue,” she wrote. “What I have heard from Canadians is that they want to know the truth.”
Jenny Kwan, a member of the New Democratic Party from British Columbia, said Trudeau’s action undermined his claim of being a feminist.
“This is about really speaking truth to power, and the government shut it down,” she said.
But Carolyn Bennett, the minister of indigenous relations, tried to repair any damage, telling reporters after Trudeau spoke that the prime minister’s commitment to feminism was not a sham.
“It’s not about gender,” she said, saying that her former colleagues had to go simply because they could not be trusted.
Until Tuesday, Trudeau had studiously avoided criticizing either of his former ministers. “I’ve approached this situation with patience and understanding,” he said.
But he called last week’s revelation that Wilson-Raybould secretly recorded a conversation with the country’s top public servant “unconscionable”
The two were discussing the case against SNC-Lavalin, which has been charged with bribing Libyan officials during the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi.
Trudeau’s government was asking Wilson-Raybould to consider using a new measure, similar to ones in the United States and some European countries, that would allow the company to avoid conviction in exchange for a substantial financial penalty.
A criminal conviction would have barred the company from government work, which could potentially have imperiled thousands of Canadian jobs. Trudeau and his aides have repeatedly denied any impropriety.
Philpott also angered her Liberal colleagues by saying in a magazine interview that Wilson-Raybould was being blocked by the government from revealing important information about the case.