Lots of people are giving Justin Trudeau advice on what he should do next. “Here’s how you save yourself”, is their theme, but the advice itself is all over the map. They tell him to tough it out, or to push his alternative narrative (also called the Butts story). They tell him to fire some more staffers, to carry out a review of interdepartmental communications, or to go quiet and let the story fade away. They tell him to be strong with JWR and Jane Philpott, to assert his authority.
Since I had the audacity to express an opinion on the JWR side of the SNC-Lavalin story last week, I have been thinking about this question as well.
My conclusion is that most of the pundits are missing the key issues Justin needs to address. They are talking politics, and messaging, and issues management, and all that stuff.
They’ve entirely lost sight of the fact that he’s the Prime Minister of Canada.
As Prime Minister, what are the critical issues related to this problem that he has to address right now? There are two that matter the most:
- Wasted Talents. You have two very capable, and potentially valuable, members of caucus whose skills are not being used. They remain committed to the overall agenda of the government, and they can provide significant assistance in moving that agenda forward, but right now they are being wasted. You can’t waste the talents of your best people and still govern as well as you should. Not only that, but if they are personally disaffected, they will bring down the ability of other members of your team to do their best job as well. You have to fix this.
- Priorities. There are a number of priority policy directions that need to command the attention of your government and your team. Fighting fires is a distraction that you can’t afford. Sure, this is an election year, but the best way to win the election is to get back to the policy directions that are important. You have to shift the focus back to what matters, and the sooner the better.
I see people nodding in agreement, but also – cynically – mouthing “That’s all well and good, but how does Justin achieve this?”
The answer is probably that Justin should stick to what he’s good at, play to his own strengths.
Those strengths are not being the boss, telling other people what to do. He didn’t get where he is by being the smartest person in the room, nor by being intellectually intimidating or even decisive. He is not going to scare or bully people into doing what he wants, a la Stephen Harper. Aside from his obvious lineage advantage, he got where he is by listening to other people, surrounding himself with talent, adopting and supporting core principles (inclusion, a fair society, etc.), and clearly communicating to the public and his colleagues what matters.
Following his own natural strengths, Justin should arrange a private meeting with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. Initially, it should be a meeting between just the three of them, in his office, with no aides, assistants, or others in the room. (Others can be added once the discussion is well advanced.)
Ideally, Justin starts the meeting by asking for, and getting, agreement amongst the three of them that nothing said in that meeting will leave the room. It is intended to be a frank discussion amongst them about the current situation, and what to do about it.
Assuming they will agree to that (which I don’t doubt they will), then Justin’s agenda for the meeting should be two things:
- Common Goals. Make clear to both of them that he and the government still share their core objectives and beliefs, which is why he hasn’t considered kicking them out of caucus or otherwise punishing them, and he is not planning to do so. Emphasize their common goals. Go through some of them in detail, if the meeting dynamic allows for it.
- What Do They Want? Ask them what they want to happen that will bring them back, fully, onto the team, working with him and no longer fighting about anything. Really ask. This is not for show. This is the reason the meeting is off the record. The point is to let two very smart and dynamic people tell you honestly what they would like to see happen now. The job of the Prime Minister in this situation is to listen.
Now, despite the important of listening, Justin should not go into the meeting without thinking through some of the possibilities, and how he might feel about them. He should be ready to explore options that, a week ago, might have been unacceptable. He should be willing to consider that they are intelligent and capable, and what they want may well be good ideas worth considering, even if he initially doesn’t like those ideas.
One of his goals, of course, should be to make the conversation as constructive as possible, so that they have the same openness to new approaches to resolve the situation and move forward.
What could come up in the meeting?
Will Justin resign over this “scandal”. He should be definitive. No he won’t. In fact, if they ask him to do so, that is fairly clear evidence that some or all of JWR’s strategy in this whole thing is to become Prime Minister sooner rather than later. That would change the whole nature of the discussion. On the other hand, this is unlikely to be raised, because it is not likely part of her strategy.
Will the new AG, David Lametti, direct Kathleen Roussel to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin? It is time for Justin to get off the fence on this, and say that whatever Roussel decides will be what happens, and the AG will not interfere at the request of, or with the assent of, the PM. Lametti will be told in no uncertain terms that his role is to preserve the independence of the AG and the DPP. Given the decision of Justice Catherine Kane in Federal Court yesterday, this is necessary anyway.
Will Justin return JWR to her role as MOJAG (Minister of Justice and Attorney-General)? The answer must be no. Whatever mistakes were made in the mechanics or optics or even substance of the Cabinet shuffle, Justin should not undermine the authority of his position as first minister by reversing the changes. If he does, he is toast, and he might as well just resign.
Will Justin publicly apologize to JWR? One way or another, the answer probably has to be yes, but you can apologize by actions as well as by words. On the other side, although JWR may want an apology, it may not be in her long term interests to get one, at least not directly. A message of “families can fight but still love each other” may be better for everyone involved.
Will JWR accept the Cabinet position of Minister of Indigenous Services if it includes a new mandate letter, i.e. to get rid of the Indian Act? She’s fought against this law for years, and all three in the room believe that the Indian Act should go. There is no better way to send a message that the relationship between Canada and First Nations is really changing than to put an opponent of the Indian Act in charge of getting rid of it. Not only that, but it allows both Justin and JWR to come away with a victory. JWR accepts the position Justin originally offered, reinforcing his discretion to choose his Cabinet. Justin formally mandates JWR to achieve something she has wanted for years.
Will the government split up the roles of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, as a number of legal commentators have been stating recently (and, in some cases, for years)? Again, the answer should probably be yes, if for no other reason than it shows real, positive institutional change arising out of this situation.
Will Justin fire Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, for stepping beyond his proper role and pushing political issues on other staffers and on a Minister? This is a tougher one, and the possibility of actually firing him is probably not fair, or realistic. On the other hand, Wernick is 61, and has worked for the federal government for 38 years. He is in a position to retire on a full pension, having reached the highest level of the federal public service. This can probably be arranged. It may cost an OC after his name, but he probably deserves one anyway.
Will JWR publicly admit that the Butts/Trudeau version of what happened is not a lie? That is, while it isn’t how she perceived it, it is a legitimate if quite different way of looking at the same facts? JWR didn’t get the string of successes she has over her career by being unwilling to accept different perspectives. This is likely doable, in some form or another.
Will Gerry Butts come back into the government in some role, and will JWR and Jane take the initiative on that? This is also more complicated, but keep in mind that JWR and Butts and their spouses have been, at least in the recent past, personal friends. They should probably both make the effort to get over this problem from a personal point of view, and maybe Jane Philpott can help with that.
Will JWR and/or Jane participate in a high-level subcommittee of Ministers to look at how to deal with the SNC-Lavalin situation if, as expected, it is convicted? You might think they would be toxic to that group, but in fact they are creative problem-solvers who know how to be pragmatic when it’s necessary. Once a DPA is off the table, they may be more than willing to help solve what is a legitimate public policy problem.
There are lots of other possibilities to consider, plus of course unexpected ideas and proposals that JWR and Jane will come up with. All should be taken seriously. If Justin is truly the great listener, this is his chance to show it. Be prepared not just for what you expect, but for what you don’t expect.
Naturally, there is the possibility that Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott simply won’t play, or will play but be unreasonable. Whatever they would be able to work out with Justin, they may conclude that they can’t trust the government to actually follow through. You can’t discount this scenario, but it is not a reason to pass up on a “We can work it out” opportunity. Every attempt to find common ground in a dispute has failure as a potential outcome. Success is also a potential outcome. Until success is no longer possible, the risk of failure is simply irrelevant.
On the other hand, if they are willing to find a common way forward, this situation could turn into a victory for everyone (except SNC-Lavalin, of course). Justin’s style of collaborative leadership is shown to work. The Liberal caucus is back to full strength, with two star team members racking up goals and assists once again. The party has an easier time attracting other star candidates, given what happened here.
And, of some importance, JWR is back on track to being Prime Minister after Justin. Whether not that continues to be a crucial personal goal for her, the fact is that bringing her back to the front benches, within a context of reconciliation of strong personalities, now puts that job back within reach.
Finally, if Justin – with the co-operation and creativity of JWR and Jane – can pull this off, the Liberals almost certainly win a majority in the next election. Vindication of a new way of governing will set the Liberals apart from the Andrew Scheer-led Conservatives, especially if the international press revert to their previous fawning over Justin’s New Age approach to leadership.
Do I have any expectation that the Prime Minister will actually follow this course of action?
No. His advisors are primarily political operatives, who will see this as a political problem to be resolved. Treating it as a Prime Ministerial problem will not be top of mind.
- Jay Shepherd, March 9, 2019