The Real Problem the SNC Lavalin Affair Exposes

March 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

Canada’s media is beside itself right now over a case of politics within the cabinet of the Trudeau government.  The problem begins with SNC Lavalin, ostensibly an engineering firm headquartered in Montréal.  About a decade ago, it did some skeezy things in Libya.  SNC Lavalin, however, is no stranger to skeeziness.  The issue arises from something called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which, under Canadian law, allows the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PSSC) to essentially allow corporations to plea bargain their way out of a spot of bother.  It would appear the the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wished this current mess for SNC Lavalin to go away via a DPA, though the then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to do.  She has complained that she felt pressured to alter her decision, which she refused to do.  This has been denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts.  And through it all, Trudeau has managed to keep his trademark calm, upsetting Canadians who want him to at least acknowledge some wrong-doing.

But, despite both the Canadian and the foreign media’s best attempts to make this look like something, the fact of the matter is, we have two versions of a process, and at worst, Trudeau looks like a jerk. Nothing illegal happened here.  This is not corruption.  What Wilson-Raybould described reads to me as little more than business-as-usual Canadian cabinet-level politicking.

But all of this obscures two, if not three, larger issues at hand here.  The first is the dual portfolio of Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Canada.  The two roles appear to be contradictory, as this person is both responsible for the Department of Justice as well as being the Chief Federal Legal Advisor.  As well, this portfolio is ultimately responsible for legal enforcement at the federal level in Canada.  In other Parliamentary democracies, such as the UK and Australia, these two roles are separate, and in the UK, the Attorney General is not technically part of the cabinet.  While politicking of the sort Wilson-Raybould has, as far as I can tell from my own research, is part and parcel of Canadian government, the time has come to split the two roles.

Second, and perhaps the greatest problem is the influence of corporatism in our politics in Canada.  The idea of a DPA, or an equivalent, has been part of American law enforcement since the 1980s.  In the UK, DFAs have legally been in place since 2015; in France, since 2016, and Australia in 2017.  In Canada, Bill C-74 became law in 2018.  But, what this did was formalize an already extant option used by the PSSC.  Legal scholars tend to prefer the idea of a DPA, especially in the case of multinational corporations and the difficulties of carrying out corruption inquiries on this level, to say nothing of the massive amount of money and resources such an investigation requires.

Taken on that level, of course, a DPA makes perfect sense.  But, what this kerfuffle over SNC Lavalin currently shows us is how much influence our major corporations have in our politics and legal enforcement.  It would appear that our Prime Minister, who is also the Member of Parliament for Papineau, a Montréal riding.  And where is SNC Lavalin based?  Montréal.  So, the optics aren’t good.  The PMO was lobbying for a DFA to protect SNC Lavalin from the cost of a conviction, which is a 10-year ban on federal contracts.  And while it is not surprising that a powerful MP from Montréal would wish to intervene and save SNC Lavalin from prosecution.  But, once again, the optics are not good when that MP is also the Prime Minister.

But there is this corporate influence.  And it’s not like the main opposition party is any better.  During the long nine-year reign of error of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, there were countless instances of corporatism, from selling out Canadian Crown Corporations to foreign corporations, to striking down oversight of corporate behaviour.  And whilst our third party, the New Democrats (NDP) have never come close to forming a federal government, the party has been the government in several provinces, multiple times (in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario).  Despite the NDP’s leftist claims, its behaviour in power shows it’s no different than the Liberals or Conservatives.

In other words, corporate influence in Canadian politics is real, powerful, and dangerous for our democracy.

And this leads me to our third problem: our media.  Canada’s media is highly centralized, consolidated, and corporate.  The daily broadsheet newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Montréal (in English, anyway), and Ottawa are owned by Postmedia.  Postmedia also owns the tabloid newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa.  In other words, the newspaper market in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa is monopolized by Postmedia.  Postmedia also owns nearly every small-town newspaper in the country.  And finally, the company also owns The National Post, Canada’s second and largely ignored national newspaper.

Toronto’s major daily broadsheet, the Toronto Star is owned by Torstar, a major media company.  Toronto is also home to the Globe & Mail, which bills itself as Canada’s national newspaper. The Globe is owned by the Woodbridge Company, which until 2015 owned the Canadian Television network, or CTV.  Woodbridge is the primary investment firm of the Thomson family, one of Canada’s wealthiest families. The Globe is also the Canadian newspaper most closely aligned with Bay Street, Canada’s financial district in Toronto.  The National Post,

The only major Canadian city that is served by a largely independent press is Montréal, where the two major French-language dailies, La Presse and Le Devoir fall outside of these larger Canadian firms.  Presse is owned by a social trust.  La Presse also no longer publishes a physical paper, it has been entirely online since 2017.  Le Devoir is owned and published by Le Devoir Inc.  But Montréal’s other French language paper, the tabloid Journal de Montréal, is owned by Québecor, one of the largest media corporations in Canada.

Québecor also owns most of Québec’s media, including the TV broadcast network, TVA.  It owns Vidéotron, the primary cable, internet, and cellular service firm in Québec.  TVA Publishing is the largest magazine publishing firm in Québec.  It also publishes books under Québecor Media Book Group.  And finally, it owns Canada.com/Canada.ca, a major on-line news site that covers the entire country of Canada.

Meanwhile, BCE Inc. owns CTV, as well as Bell, which is one of the largest cable/satellite TV providers in the country, to say nothing of cell services.  It also, interestingly, owns parts of both the Canadiens de Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two biggest hockey teams in the world.  Rogers, the other major cable provider in Canada, also owns a cell service, one of the largest magazine publishing firms in Canada, a large chunk of Canadian radio stations.

In short, our media is corporate, deeply and widely, except for the newspapers in Montréal.  We also have the state-owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so it is technically independent, as it is arms’ length from the government.  But the CBC’s problem is it tries to be too many things to too many different people.  The Société Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, suffers from many of the same problems.

And our independent news sites, outside of La Presse and Le Devoir, are essentially partisan outlets, preaching to the converted.

So, with our government beholden to corporate interests, many of which are the same interests which own our media, we have a very deep and serious problem.  And, of course, this is not what our political parties are talking about.  The Liberals, obviously this isn’t something they’ll touch right now.  The Conservatives will, of course, score as many political points as they can off SNC Lavalin, but they’ve down the same thin in power and will do again.  And, then there’s the NDP.  This should be the chance for embattled leader, Jagmeet Singh, to take a stand and talk about the influence of corporations in our media and politics. But, nope.  He and his party are too interested in scoring cheap political points from SNC Lavalin, which, of course, suggests the NDP would be no different in office.

Meanwhile, Canadian democracy suffers.

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