There are so many ways Justin Trudeau has failed to live up to his promise to change the way politics works in this country, from electoral reform to open and transparent government to decentralization of power from the Prime Minister’s Office.
But as Ottawa awaits Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair, it’s evident that there is at least one change to the political culture that the Prime Minister has not been able to entirely go back on – even if he might now wish he could.
Before the last election, Mr. Trudeau made a point of recruiting a diverse array of candidates who, despite impressive professional credentials, often did not have much partisan political experience; he then immediately elevated some to cabinet without making them acclimatize to Ottawa first. The idea was they would bring a fresh perspective rather than conforming to all of the capital’s norms.
In Ms. Wilson-Raybould, there was at least one minister who embraced that expectation and then some. And courtesy of her refusal to go with the usual flow – defer to the PM, soldier on for the good of the team even when personally affronted – she is at the centre of a political culture clash that goes beyond just these Liberals.
It’s true that Ms. Wilson-Raybould occupied a unique position in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet because of the dual roles of justice minister and attorney-general – the latter of which is supposed to be free from political interference such as pressure from the PMO to defer SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution.
It’s also true that Mr. Trudeau’s shop has spectacularly bungled everything that came after she did not submit to that pressure: first by demoting her in January, and then by clumsily shifting from one message to another, alternately poking and praising her, after The Globe and Mail broke the SNC-Lavalin story earlier this month.
But ministers in recent federal governments – those of Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper – have put up with arguably worse. Even the rare ones who have quit on points of principle, such as Michael Chong from Mr. Harper’s cabinet, have tended to do so in relatively quiet ways without seeming as intent on really holding the PM to account.
So to spend time in Ottawa last week, as Ms. Wilson-Raybould was expressing her wish to speak “my truth” before the committee, was to encounter eyebrow-raising about what she is up to. Now, drawing from just about the only huffy ministerial exits anyone can remember (most famously Paul Martin’s), there is an undercurrent of speculation: Is she making some kind of play for Mr. Trudeau’s job? Why else would anyone be so willing, while still a Liberal MP, to jeopardize her party’s re-election chances with the next campaign months away?
In other words: Some people who have walked the corridors of power are unprepared for the prospect that someone might not be all that interested in being there just for its own sake.
By appearances, Ms. Wilson-Raybould displayed unwillingness to go along to get along even before the current mess. Complaints about her being “difficult” were circulating before SNC-Lavalin blew up. In particular, she seems to have done little to hide her frustration over the pace of improvements to Indigenous rights – work to which she has devoted most of her adult life, and which may have been more important to her than how high she climbed in Ottawa’s pecking order.
And yet, assumptions about how ministers will behave die hard. Having had a chance to work with Ms. Wilson-Raybould for more than three years, Mr. Trudeau evidently thought she would stick to the usual script for ministers shuffled from jobs they wanted to stay in: gamely acting humbled by any opportunity to serve and mindful of ways she could improve. Instead, her initial response was to release a 2,000-word letter defending her record at Justice and emphasizing her willingness to “speak truth to power” – and that was before she quit cabinet altogether.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould may very well be an anomaly. No other Liberal minister seems to have come close to her level of pushback, so if the party is re-elected in the fall, it might be business as usual. For all the Conservatives’ newfound opposition to central control, their recent history in government hardly suggests they would usher in a new era of independent-mindedness whenever they return there.
It is also possible that when Ms. Wilson-Raybould appears before the committee, she will deliver unsensational testimony that fails to match the anticipation of her truth-telling.
But so far, she has at least compelled Ottawa to reconsider what the role of a cabinet minister is exactly, and she might have given pause to the current and future prime ministers about being too presumptuous on that front. That would be real change, even if Mr. Trudeau was long past the point of wanting it.