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Canada Finally addressing SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau seems to be stuck in between old and new politics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa March 7, 2019.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau is trapped in no man’s land.

Finally addressing the SNC-Lavalin affair at length this week, the Prime Minister was somewhere between apologetic and defiant, revealing and reticent, conciliatory and angry toward former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould for her role in it.

There are many possible explanations for that: conflicting advice, worry about going too far out on a limb that could come back to haunt him, the lack of a playbook for the sort of crisis that has engulfed his government.

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But a month into that crisis, Thursday’s news conference also seemed the latest evidence of something more fundamental. Mr. Trudeau appears to have trapped himself between two types of politics – a more hard-nosed, old-school, authoritarian one and the sensitive, collaborative version he promised when he came to power – and is experiencing a political identity crisis as a result.

While he has rightly taken heat for his Liberals’ often patronizing and occasionally nasty tone toward Ms. Wilson-Raybould, he has not been as ruthless since the scandal broke as some of his predecessors would have been. He has not consistently tried to muzzle her and has so far allowed her to remain in caucus after she quit cabinet and laid out a case against her own government before a parliamentary committee. Nor has he simply dismissed any criticism or attacked the media for reporting it.

He has not, in other words, been totally willing to totally abandon his pledge to do politics differently from Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien or even his own father. And interactions with people around him suggest they are genuinely offended by suggestions that he has done so.

But if he had really stuck to that pledge, we wouldn’t be here today. The Prime Minister’s Office would have been more reluctant to do the bidding of a well-connected corporate giant by putting pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to defer criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin for international corruption. It would have respected her judgment when she declined to do so, rather than seemingly viewing her as unjustifiably obstructionist. His government would not have earned a reputation by that point for being at least as centralized around a small group of PMO aides as those that came before it.

And this week, he forewent a chance – perhaps his last one – to recommit to the style of governance he once promised.

Beyond the apology that Mr. Trudeau has been widely criticized for failing to offer, when he finally addressed the scandal head-on, he could have delivered an address that aimed higher.

He could, for instance, have told Canadians that he recruited and immediately put in cabinet independent-minded people without much partisan political experience such as Ms. Wilson-Raybould (and Jane Philpott, who earlier this week resigned in solidarity) because he wanted them to bring fresh perspectives to Ottawa. He could have said that, by speaking truth to power as they have, they were challenging the capital’s deferential culture as he had hoped they would.

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He could have admitted that he himself had been slow to adjust, that even if his intentions were good – just trying to protect all those SNC-Lavalin jobs – his wielding of power had been too rooted in old ways. He could have said that in retrospect, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s pushback was reason to keep her at Justice, rather than moving her as he did in January. He could have tried to reframe this entire episode as a pivotal learning moment for himself and all of Ottawa’s political class.

At points during Thursday’s appearance, Mr. Trudeau flirted with that message. He talked vaguely about “lessons” and said he should have been aware of an “erosion of trust” between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and his office.

Again, that’s more than some other PMs would have allowed. But he was defensive enough to indicate that he thought grievances on the part of Ms. Wilson-Raybould or anyone else were based on a misreading of his intentions; that the only thing his office would do differently, if he could, would be to better communicate its noble intentions.

Mr. Trudeau has access to many of the best political minds in the country, and their instincts or their opinion research may have given him good reason to try to walk the line that he did.

But at some level, he had to speak what Ms. Wilson-Raybould might have called “his truth.” And it sounded as though he was still struggling himself to figure out what that is exactly.

Perhaps he just made it harder to define him by this episode and easier for his party to move past it by October’s election. But at the moment, it feels as if he’s caught between what Ottawa was before he took office and what he promised it could be, which could be a good recipe for pleasing nobody.

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