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VIBERT: Lavalin affair could give new life to federal NDP

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Like most of us, voters in Monday’s three federal byelections don’t know yet what to make of the Liberals’ current ethical stew, so they ignored it and delivered the results expected of them.

The Conservatives easily won a safe Ontario seat. The Liberals brought a Quebec seat back into their traditional fold, and the leader of the NDP handily won a seat in B.C.

Canadians will finally get to take the full measure of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in the House of Commons, a prospect that worries Liberals hardly at all despite the certain knowledge that their greatest political threat is a resurgent NDP.

That’s because Singh’s performance during the 16 months he’s led the New Democrats has been, to be charitable, uneven. He’s been at odds with the party’s parliamentary caucus and at times he appeared poorly informed on key issues.

But his major handicap was his absence from Parliament and from regular interaction with his caucus. With that hurdle gone, Singh now has about eight months until the federal election to make or break his political future.

The Liberals tend to dismiss Singh as a political light-weight, but he is untested. Whether Singh will rise to the occasion or fall and take the NDP’s electoral fortunes with him remains to be seen.

With the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Liberals may have handed both the Conservatives and the NDP a gift that keeps on giving.

Jody Wilson-Raybould will finally tell her story to the Commons’ justice committee Wednesday and she’s asked for and been given 30 minutes for an opening statement. She obviously has a good deal to say.

Canadians now know that, even after the director of public prosecutions determined that SNC-Lavalin would not be offered a deferred prosecution, discussions on the matter continued between senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and then-Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Those discussions included the dire prospects for the company and its thousands of employees if Lavalin is convicted on corruption charges and banned from federal contracts for a decade.

SNC-Lavalin didn’t get the sought-after deferral and in January, after Scott Brison’s retirement forced a cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved Wilson-Raybould to Veteran’s Affairs.

The Conservatives and New Democrats draw a straight line from what they claim was pressure on Wilson-Raybould to give SNC-Lavalin the deferral, her refusal to do so and her removal from the justice portfolio. She later resigned from cabinet after the prime minister seemed to suggest that her continued presence at the cabinet table was proof that nothing inappropriate had occurred.

Monday night, Trudeau’s cabinet freed Wilson-Raybould from whatever limits cabinet confidentiality or solicitor-client privilege might have imposed on her, clearing the way for her appearance at the committee and, they hope, to start the process of putting the affair behind them.

The controversy has already cost the government two resignations — Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerry Butts — and absent an unlikely exoneration from Wilson-Raybould, this controversy isn’t going anywhere soon.

The spectre of the “boys” in the PMO pressuring and then demoting Wilson-Raybould, who attained higher national office than any aboriginal Canadian before her, won’t sit well with the left-of-centre voters Trudeau attracted in 2015. Progressive voters disillusioned by the Liberals look next to the NDP.

The Liberals are in a virtual dead heat with Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in national polls. The Liberals are well ahead in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. The Conservatives have a similar lock on the Prairies. Ontario and British Columbia are battlegrounds.

A competitive NDP would cost the Liberals votes and seats, mostly by splitting the left-of-centre vote and handing seats to the Conservatives.

Singh, an Osgoode Hall-trained lawyer, has been on point with his statements on the SNC-Lavalin affair. He is now battle-hardened in a byelection that, for a time, seemed to be slipping away from him. He’s honed his messages on affordable housing, universal drug coverage and investing in the green economy.

Unlike his predecessor Thomas Mulcair, who was supposed to be Canada’s first NDP prime minister, Singh does not have to worry about meeting high expectations. His job is to pry his party’s natural constituency away from Trudeau’s Liberals.

If he gets that done, he’ll likely survive to lead the NDP in more than one election, and in the process could cost the Liberals their majority, if not a second term in power.

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