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VIBERT: Will Butts’ gamble pay off for PM?

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

It would make for better fiction if the millionaire son of a former prime minister fell on his sword to save the son of a Cape Breton coal miner. But this is Canadian politics, so not quite fiction, and it happened the other way around.

One of the myriad plot lines yet to be resolved in the current national drama is whether Gerry Butts’ resignation will work and save his boss and bestie, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, from lasting, maybe lethal political harm.

Glace Bay native Gerry Butts met the future PM at McGill University where a lasting friendship was forged. Butts is credited with the behind-the-scenes architecture of Trudeau’s political success. As principal secretary to the PM, Butts was, by some accounts, a multi-tasking marvel, and by others, a ubiquitous — and not always welcome — presence in everything that mattered to the life and mission of the government.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's principal advisor Gerald Butts looks on during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. - The Canadian Press
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's principal advisor Gerald Butts looks on during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. - The Canadian Press

Butts resigned — while protesting his innocence, his allegiance to a clean and green Canada and his high regard for Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) — to clearly identify himself as the antagonist. If there is to be a villain in this piece, it can’t be Trudeau.

The resignation of the PM’s right-hand man began a week that ended with the government’s defence taking on discernible shape. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) faces the allegation it pressured JWR when she was justice minister and attorney general to save SNC-Lavalin from criminal prosecution by offering the company what’s called a deferred prosecution agreement.

The top bureaucrat in the land, Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council, told the Commons justice committee Thursday that there were discussions about the SNC-Lavalin situation with then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, but he maintained that those conversations were entirely appropriate.

For now — and the past few weeks tell us this is subject to change — the story is that talking to the attorney general about an active criminal prosecution is not inappropriate, and if she felt pressure, well heck, the federal cabinet has nothing but pressure-packed jobs.

If that’s the company line, why did Gerry Butts resign? Because when the word “political” is inserted in the allegation the defence begins to crumble.

If and when the former attorney general tells the world she felt “political” pressure to intervene in the administration of justice on behalf of Lavalin, the discussions take on a decidedly inappropriate pallor.

And that’s where Butts comes in. He’ll be the lightning rod for allegations of political interference, drawing the heat away from the PM. He’s already said he’ll defend himself and the PMO against that accusation, setting up a she-said-he-said dichotomy, with Butts and not the PM playing the male lead.

Tuesday is shaping up as a pivotal day in this drama. Jody Wilson-Raybould appears at the justice committee, but just how forthcoming she will — or can — be remains uncertain. She’s retained legal counsel to ensure she betrays neither solicitor-client privilege nor cabinet confidence.

In the opinion of many legal scholars those strictures don’t apply here, but the only opinions that will matter Tuesday are those of JWR and her lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell.

After Butts resigned there were signs of rapprochement between Wilson-Raybould and the government. She was permitted to speak to the cabinet she quit just last week. She attended Liberal caucus and told all who asked that she remains a Liberal member of Parliament.

While the justice committee may be the venue for much of the unfolding drama, any conclusions it reaches will be divided along partisan lines. The parliamentary ethics commissioner has also taken up the case.

SNC-Lavalin was not offered a DPA, and in January JWR was shuffled out of Justice and into Veterans Affairs. The PM claims that was pure coincidence, not related to the SNC-Lavalin file, but to many observers — and the opposition — it was a demotion to punish JWR for failing to step in on behalf of the iconic Quebec-based construction and engineering company.

The critical political question, whether the prime minister has been temporarily hobbled or permanently tainted by the scandal, will be answered with finality when Canadians vote in October.

Gerry Butts gambled that his resignation would draw fire and ire away from his boss. If the gamble pays off, Butts remains the architect of Justin Trudeau’s political success. In absentia.

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