Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Motion to Authorize Committee to Examine Certain Events Relating to the Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and to Call Witnesses--Motion in Amendment--Debate

May 9, 2019


Hon. Denise Batters
[17:26]

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Ringuette’s amendment to Senator Plett’s SNC‑Lavalin motion.

This amendment is a blatant partisan move by Senator Ringuette, an attempt to drive a spike into any Senate investigation into Liberal corruption. Time and again throughout the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the Trudeau government has moved to shut down opposition and stone wall Canadians’ desire for answers on this matter. They shut down the House of Commons Justice Committee investigation of allegations of political interference with the former Attorney General after hearing from only four of 11 potential witnesses. Then the Trudeau government wouldn’t even let the House of Commons Ethics Committee study get off the ground.

The Prime Minister silenced Jody Wilson-Raybould from telling her entire story by refusing to waive the entirety of solicitor-client privilege. He then turned around and threatened a lawsuit against the Conservative leader of the official opposition, Andrew Scheer, in a feeble attempt to force his silence as well. It hasn’t worked.

Senator Ringuette’s amendment is a further extension of the long arm of the Prime Minister’s Office in the Senate. Senator Harder continues to tout the Trudeau government’s arm’s length, independent, nonpartisan Senate, and yet here we see the crassest, most cynical demonstration of partisanship going. How can Senator Harder explain the fact that we saw him pass what appeared to be the Senate amendment page to Senator Ringuette last week right here in the front row of the Senate?

The long arm of the Trudeau government reached over — one bench over to be precise — to hand an independent senator an amendment intended to gut the Conservative motion calling for an investigation into this whole sordid, corrupt Liberal affair.

When amendments are prepared in advance, the sponsoring senator’s name is often typed into the first line of the page. In this case, Senator Ringuette’s name was handwritten into the blank line on the top of the page. Did she draw the short straw in the ISG for which senator would get to carry water for the Liberal government on SNC-Lavalin that day, or was she the perfect independent Senate candidate for the job? After all, she served as a Liberal —

Hon. Lucie Moncion
[17:29]

I wish to raise a point of order. I would like the senator to focus her remarks on the motion and not on the remarks of the independent senators, Senator Ringuette or any other senator. With your consent, I would ask her to speak about the motion.

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:29]

Generally, in debate, we allow a fair amount of leeway when it comes to the topic. You raise a good point, Senator Moncion, in that we generally try to stay to the substance of the topic we are debating. That being said, there is a fair amount of leeway.

Senator Batters
[17:30]

Thank you, Your Honour.

Given that it is Senator Ringuette’s motion, Senator Ringuette served as a Liberal MLA for six years, a Liberal member of Parliament for four years and then as a Liberal senator for 13 years, 23 years serving as a Liberal politician before she had this independent epiphany.

Apparently, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Senator Ringuette dutifully carried out that mission of the PMO, closed down any avenue of investigation into the SNC‑Lavalin scandal and covered up via whatever means available. You can’t tell me that move was not politically motivated. You can’t tell me that it was not partisan.

What it does confirm is that the long arm of the Prime Minister’s Office clearly reached over to Senator Harder’s office and then into the heart of the so-called Independent Senators Group. So much for independence.

Instead of extending that long arm of the government to give her this amendment, Senator Harder should have given Senator Ringuette more of a hand when she was sponsoring Bill C-58, the highly flawed Trudeau government access to information bill. It was a mess requiring dozens of amendments, including a large number of government amendments at committee stage, and an unheard of six clause-by-clause meetings. That meant 16 hours of clause-by-clause deliberations alone because this Trudeau government and its proxies in the Senate couldn’t get their act together on that particular bill.

All of that time at the Senate Legal Committee could have been used more productively. Without six clause-by-clause meetings on Bill C-58, we could have dealt with Bill C-337, an important bill on judicial training regarding sexual assault. Yet again, the Trudeau government’s incompetence held it up.

Senator Ringuette’s amendment, or should I say the Trudeau government’s amendment, equates the Senator Mike Duffy matter with the SNC scandal and demonstrates the Trudeau government doesn’t understand the unique role of the Attorney General and the sanctity of prosecutorial independence. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Prime Minister Trudeau can’t seem to wrap his head around the true meaning of independence. He has repeatedly demonstrated in this chamber he doesn’t understand the concept.

It is curious Senator Ringuette would raise the Senator Duffy matter which was dealt with long ago. Senator Duffy has been back in this chamber for three years. If this amendment is meant to impugn Conservative senators, may I remind Senator Ringuette that Senator Duffy sits as a member of the ISG caucus, not ours.

Since Senator Ringuette raised the issue, I will note that in the Duffy affair Prime Minister Harper waived all solicitor-client privilege in order to facilitate an investigation into that matter. Prime Minister Trudeau only partially waived Jody Wilson-Raybould’s solicitor-client privilege to prevent her from sharing the entire extent of the situation. In the Trudeau government SNC-Lavalin scandal, they have attempted to cover up the truth and shut down discussion at every turn. Senator Ringuette’s amendment is just one example.

For further evidence, we need only look at the course of events that occurred in this place after Senator Ringuette introduced this amendment for Senator Harder last Thursday. Immediately, the ISG and government senators moved to try to shut down debate on the motion and then proceeded to vote as one big independent block to do just that. It seems that standard operating procedure for the big cover-up caucus is to shut down debate, silence opposition and create an echo chamber so they can listen only —

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:33]

Senator Batters, excuse me. I just finished saying we allow a fair amount of leeway when it comes to debate. I would caution that you cannot assert improper motives when you’re naming a senator or a group. To call a group a “cover-up group” is a very close line to what’s not parliamentary. I would just caution you on that.

Senator Batters
[17:34]

During the one-hour bell before that adjournment vote, The Globe and Mail story dropped, which exposed how Prime Minister Trudeau’s office vets its independent senators shortlist through an internal Liberal Party database. As soon as that story came out, very quickly after the Senate adjourned. Once again, honourable senators, what we’re showing is the Trudeau government’s smoke and mirrors independent Senate is not that at all.

The long arm of the PMO in this particular case has intervened, as it usually does, to obscure, delay and confuse the issue. I’ll tell you what’s not confusing, honourable senators, is the supposedly independent Trudeau-appointed senators are drawn from the ranks of Liberal donors, Liberal Party Laurier Club members, past Liberal candidates, past elected Liberal politicians, past riding executives and Trudeau Foundation members. I guess that’s because diversity is our strength.

Right now the Trudeau government’s Senate leader is letting the veil slip. Last Thursday, Senator Harder was looking around the chamber for an independent assistant to do the Trudeau government’s bidding and shut down Senator Plett’s motion. Senator Ringuette, one of the staunchest loyal Liberals in the ISG caucus, did just that.

This kind of smoke and mirrors is not what Canadians want, honourable senators. Frankly, they deserve better than this. Canadians want answers about whether the Trudeau government is trying to keep the truth from them. Canadians want answers about whether the Prime Minister and his top officials attempted to subvert the rule of law by pressuring the Attorney General’s independence. Canadians want to know whether the people we entrust to act as the guardians of our constitutional democracy, the people who hold the reins of political power, are worthy of the honour. You may have your opinions, honourable senators, as do I, but as the chamber of sober second thought, we as the Senate owe it to Canadians to investigate this SNC matter fully and completely and provide Canadians with answers.

We cannot allow the truth to be obscured by intentional distraction with controversies long in the past or by shutting down committee studies or by altering the study to focus on issues irrelevant to the matter at hand. What is being proposed in Senator Ringuette’s amendment is just one more avenue for the Trudeau government to cover up this issue.

It is interesting, for a group that seems to want to make the Senate a debating chamber, that some members of this place are remarkably incurious about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the biggest issue to rock Canadian politics in decades. When I return home to Saskatchewan, Canadians in my hometown of Regina approach me demanding answers about the Trudeau government’s investigation into SNC-Lavalin. I know Canadians in other regions share those concerns.

How is it, then, that Justin Trudeau’s appointed senators are oblivious to it? Aren’t they talking to Canadians in their regions? Canadians want answers. They want to consider the evidence for themselves.

We have a chance to give them that opportunity. That’s why I ask you to join me in voting against this amendment and in favour of Senator Plett’s motion to send this matter to the Senate Legal Committee for further investigation. Canadians deserve better. Thank you.

[17:37]

Senator Batters, would you take a question?

Senator Batters
[17:37]

Yes.

[17:37]

Senator Batters, you continue with this myth that the Conservative Party has perpetrated on Canadians — and the media bought into it — that it’s unusual for the Prime Minister’s Office to go to the party’s financial database to see if people have given money to the party. Indeed, as soon as someone is appointed here, someone over there — perhaps not in your group but here in Ottawa — is sitting in front of a computer checking the Elections Canada donor list to see if nominee A or nominee B has a history of giving money to the Liberal Party of Canada. That happens.

In my past life, when the Conservatives appointed somebody, I would check to see if they were a donor to the Conservative Party. Quite frankly, the Prime Minister’s Office — thank God they did this right — checked to see if people have given money to the Liberal Party of Canada because they needed to know.

When I was appointed to this place, the Conservative caucus picked one of their members and gave instructions to see if I truly qualified to be a member of this chamber. It was because of my employment in Ottawa and my residency in Nova Scotia. I know this because years later that senator told me about this assignment. That’s politics.

Would you not agree that every time somebody is appointed here that somebody checks them out on behalf of the Conservative Party?

Senator Batters
[17:39]

Senator Mercer, as you would be keenly aware, given your substantial political history in the Liberal Party of Canada, the difference between what’s happening now and what happened under partisan governments that appointed people who were actually accountable to a Prime Minister and partisan in that case is that that was as to be expected — Liberals appointing Liberals, Conservatives appointing Conservatives and others, because others were appointed by those particular governments as well.

The difference is that when you’re checking Elections Canada databases, as I’ve said in some of my recent questions, you have a situation where that is publicly available information, which should be checked.

However, here we have the situation where we have a Liberal Prime Minister who is supposed to be appointing independent, non-partisan — as they continue to tell us — senators, yet all of a sudden we need to check the Liberal Party database to find out whether they have lawn signs, party memberships, donations less than $200 and identified support? All of those things are not publicly available information but, of course, are normal. As you would expect, you would find out what is actually publicly available so you can answer questions later.

However, the Liberal Party database goes much further than that. This government said they wanted to appoint independent, non-partisan senators, yet they’re still checking it against the Liberal Party database. That’s where the distinction comes in.

Hon. Tony Dean
[17:41]

Honourable senators, I rise to contribute to what I think is an important discussion. Senator Ringuette’s proposed amendment, first of all, is responsive to my concerns about Senator Plett’s motion and, in particular, its narrow focus.

Senator Ringuette’s proposal to broaden an inquiry to explore the relationship among all three branches of government is important, and I think it fits well with the non-partisan rubric of the original motion. It would allow us to examine the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government, on the one hand, and the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, on the other — two interesting case studies.

Second, we know that the issues related to SNC-Lavalin are still under review by the Ethics Commissioner for the House of Commons. If it’s anything as exhaustive as Ontario’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner’s review of the Doug Ford hiring issue, we can expect the current review to be exhaustive. It’s important that we wait for that review to conclude before doing anything further, regardless of the scope of the proposals in front of us.

Third, for the time being, we know all we need to know about the facts associated with this issue. The House of Commons Justice Committee has heard extensive testimony from two former ministers, the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary. There has been supplementary evidence, recorded conferences and more recent statements from two of the principal complainants, to the effect that we already know all we need to know.

I now want to transition over to another feature of the debate that occurred last week — and it has come up again tonight — namely, points made about independent senators in this place. These are embedded in the record. I am following up on debate from last week on this motion, and from the debate and comments made by Senator Batters a few moments ago.

We heard this last week — and it was echoed afterwards in social media — two Conservative senators referring, on May 5, 2019, to Trudeau’s “fake independent Senate.” We heard something like that earlier tonight.

I will first point out something rather obvious, namely, that a couple of weeks prior to this, in a debate about a programming motion, Conservative senators took the opposing view, stating that since the ISG was not a partisan caucus, it should have no role in discussion of programming agreements. You can probably tell where I’m going with this. It is that our colleagues across the way might start by getting their stories straight because right now it seems we are variably being described as partisan or not partisan on any given day.

Indeed, I stand — and sit — with a terrific group of independent senator colleagues in this chamber who demonstrate daily their integrity, their professionalism, their focus on policy and, indeed, following through on deals they make.

Hon. David M. Wells (Acting Deputy Leader of the Opposition)
[17:44]

On a point of order, and not at all with any disrespect to Senator Dean, I believe we’re on Motion No. 470, and I haven’t heard one word regarding that topic.

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:45]

Honourable senators, Senator Dean has entered debate on the amendment. As I said earlier, we give a fair amount of leeway until we start bumping into unparliamentary language. I will allow him to continue, but the debate is on the amendment to motion no. 470.

Senator Dean
[17:45]

Yes. Your Honour, I will make a further point on the amendment, and that is my perspective from my work and observations while working in government.

I said earlier in debate about the SNC-Lavalin issue that our political colleagues work within a governance context guided by rules, conventions and practicality. There is both a formal and informal governance structure, and it works well. Ministers talk to one another, Prime Ministers talk to ministers, and staff talk to ministers. That is commonplace; it happens all the time. And, yes, sometimes people talk to Attorneys General. These are the realities of daily political and ministerial life. Those of you with a political background know that only too well.

As my colleagues did last week, and as Senator Batters did tonight, I will transition back to comments made about my colleagues on this side of the house, and I will do that with parliamentary language and with respect.

Senator Plett
[17:46]

As opposed to what?

Senator Dean
[17:46]

Here’s the real point, though: In perhaps a surprise move following the 2015 election, the Prime Minister chose to set aside historical patterns of predominantly filling Senate seats with party faithful, and he also removed Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus.

Instead, through an independent selection process, he selected a group of independent senators, with each one being asked by the PM to do only one thing: to work towards a more independent and less partisan Senate — nothing more; no mention at all of supporting his election platform or anything else, and nothing since.

Indeed, most, if not all, of the independent senators appointed since 2015 would not have accepted a political appointment. I certainly would not have. It was independence that attracted me here — the freedom to make up our own minds and vote as we see fit as opposed to taking instructions from anyone.

There has been, I know, discomfort about this from some of my colleagues in this place, and I know that the notion of a more independent Senate is a bit threatening in a change-resistant environment. It is uncomfortable, I suspect, to fill the institution under threat of change, even if that is change for the better.

Now I will take on the question of fake independent senators.

First, obviously the PM might not have made this change in appointing independent senators at all. He could have followed the crowd that went before him and appointed a majority of explicit party loyalists, as his predecessors did. He certainly would have had a happier, larger and more powerful Liberal caucus in the Senate, and I dare say this might have sat well with those in the balance of the Senate.

There was a more direct and easier route to the continuation of a partisan Senate. To his credit, the Prime Minister, likely guided by the Supreme Court, set out to build a more independent and less partisan Senate. I emphasize “less” because no one is talking about a non-partisan Senate.

The PM likely not only had an unhappy group of former Liberals in the Senate, but he had a group of independently minded senators. Early independent appointees, including Senator Lankin, weighed in on amendments to medical assistance in dying. Senator Pratte led the charge against the inclusion of the federal Infrastructure Bank in a budget bill and brought everyone else along with him — probably not the sort of partisan gesture I’m hearing about earlier. Senator Pratte, a Liberal in sheep’s clothing? I think not.

Senator Pate has consistently defended the rights of Indigenous and other persons incarcerated in prisons, and especially solitary confinement. How is that working for the PM? Her work on mandatory minimum sentences and segregation is groundbreaking, admirable and entirely independent.

Senator Omidvar, a champion of immigration and refugees, has taken on the government on a number of bills, including some parts of Bill C-45 which would see non-permanent residents treated inequitably in the justice system. I’m not seeing our colleague Senator D. Black here, so I’m not going to commend his work on Bill C-69 in his absence.

This is only a partial series of examples of a more policy-focused, less partisan and more independent Senate at work. But look around beyond this group to the broader group of ISG senators in this place and ask yourselves how many of us would have been on the traditional Liberal faithful list? How many of us would have agreed to leave our jobs behind as senior leaders in a number of sectors if it was for the purpose of taking orders from the Prime Minister’s Office? Very few, probably none.

Now, you know all of this. Indeed, you continue to make the case that it is otherwise. I know there would be more comfort with the old duopoly, with senators from the Liberal world and the Conservative world sharing power, but that’s not what we have right now.

Now let’s go back to the substance of Senator Ringuette’s motion, and I thank you for your indulgence.

Senator Batters
[17:51]

One minute left.

Senator Dean
[17:51]

Terrific. I think I can manage that. Perhaps I will ask for more time.

I had talked about the fact that politicians, ministers, Prime Ministers chat with one another from time to time and indeed they talk to their Attorneys General. You know this; everybody in this place who has worked in government and on public policy knows this. There’s a clear exception to the practice of this, of course, where it involves the Attorney General, who is the chief law officer of the Crown. This doesn’t mean that justice ministers or Attorneys General are immunized from advice, lobbying or an expression of preferences. Let’s be realistic about that.

However, an AG, unlike other ministers, has the ability, independence and responsibility to determine their own cause having regard to the law and public interest. This is what appears to have happened in this case, and it happened in another case that was in the news last night.

The one thing that’s strikingly clear is that there has been no variance in the well-known position taken by the federal prosecution service. To this point in time, SNC-Lavalin’s request for a deferred prosecution arrangement has been denied. I’m simply going to observe that the government’s process we have in place in our political process to protect the integrity of the rule of law and our justice system has worked as intended.

Is this process sometimes messy? Yes, it is. Are these sorts of discussions between PMs and ministers tough? You bet they are. You’ve been involved in some of them. Some of you have been on the receiving end of them. Can they be embarrassing? Yes. Are they newsworthy? Absolutely. Are they scandalous? Questionably. Are they political fodder? Absolutely, without a doubt.

Honourable senators, all of this messiness applies equally to the governance challenges faced by the former PM, as was described by Senator Ringuette, in that particular case dealing with tense relations between the executive and legislative branches of government and crucially, in that case, going to the heart of the Senate’s independence.

For all of these reasons, I support Senator Ringuette’s amendment.

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:53]

Senator Patterson, you have two minutes.

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson
[17:54]

Would the honourable senator take a question?

Senator Dean
[17:54]

Yes, I’d be pleased to.

Senator Patterson
[17:54]

I was quite surprised, senator, when you predicted that the review of the Ethics Officer would be exhaustive. Section 43 of the act that establishes the Ethics Officer says that he or she should provide confidential advice with respect to the application of this act to individual public office holders.

Would you agree that the act and the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs is really a very narrow mandate that would not, in fact, allow for the exhaustive review that you have described as now taking place?

Senator Dean
[17:55]

Thanks for the question. It’s very pertinent and I appreciate that it was asked. It gives me the opportunity to talk a little bit more about a recent experience in Ontario where there was an ethics review.

The mandate of the ethics commissioner in that case was no broader than the one that you outline. In that case, the ethics commissioner received substantial evidence from a large number of parties in a public report that chose to talk very broadly and widely about those submissions, and to canvass all of the issues that were in play in the public and political sphere. It read like a novel. I couldn’t put it down.

Indeed, its conclusion was framed in the formally narrow context of the mandate of the ethics commissioner, but that is not a requirement. In a case of this sort, given its magnitude, its public profile, given what seems to be an appetite on the part of some for even more information when others say there is no more information, I’m optimistic about these things and I’m optimistic about our public officials. I don’t worry too much about the range, breadth and depth of mandates. It’s what people do with those things that are important.

I’m neither pessimistic or cynical about parliamentary officers and the work that they do. I think we put our trust in them and we should expect the best of them. I, like you, expect the best of this review.

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:57]

Senator Dean’s time has expired. Are you asking for more time to answer another question, Senator Dean?

Senator Dean
[17:57]

Are there other questions?

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:57]

Senator Dyck wishes to ask a question.

Senator Dean
[17:57]

Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker
[17:57]

Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck
[17:57]

Senator Dean, when you were speaking about the independent senators, you said Trudeau’s predecessors appointed party loyalists, I believe. I wanted to say I think that’s a bit of an overgeneralization. What evidence do you have that is true?

I know, for instance, with former Prime Minister Paul Martin, that definitely was not the case. In my situation, he actually gave me a choice. He said you can be a Liberal or you can be an independent. I checked with the clerk, who said, “You can be anything you want.” What did I do? I chose the NDP, not realizing they don’t believe in the Senate.

That statement you put on there really was an overgeneralization. Were you given a choice when you were appointed? You have that choice. You don’t have to stay independent.

Senator Dean
[17:58]

I hadn’t expected this to turn into such a rich debate, but let me say to my colleague Senator Dyck, you’re absolutely right.

I apologize to you and others because we know that. We know from practice that every Prime Minister despite, to a substantial extent, a large extent, relying on those people they think they can trust — by virtue of their background, political pedigree, political knowledge and experience — also look beyond that in the way that the current Prime Minister did fully, to look for people from other walks of life who have demonstrated leadership. There are not only political leaders but public service leaders. There are leaders, as we know, from the arts and from the health system.

It’s not an absolute. If I suggested that there was a prevalent practice of party loyalists, I erred.