As ethics committee meets on SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau insists Liberal team ‘more united than ever’

As ethics committee meets on SNC-Lavalin, Trudeau insists Liberal team ‘more united than ever’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is downplaying the split in the Liberal caucus over the SNC-Lavalin affair, insisting his team is strong and united.

“I am incredibly proud of the Liberal Party, that we are focused on the things that really matter to Canadians,” Trudeau said today after an event in Winnipeg.

Two cabinet ministers, Trudeau’s principal secretary and the clerk of the Privy Council have resigned in the wake of allegations of inappropriate political interference in the criminal prosecution of the Quebec-based global engineering and construction firm.

Some Liberal MPs have accused their colleagues Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott of dragging out the SNC-Lavalin affair. Liberal MP Judy Sgro said last week they should “put up or shut up” by using their parliamentary privilege to air any remaining grievances in the House of Commons.

Wilson-Raybould has said she believes she was demoted from the justice ministry to Veterans Affairs for refusing to pursue a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) for SNC-Lavalin that would have halted its criminal prosecution on bribery charges related to contracts in Libya. Trudeau has denied her claims.

Raybould resigned from cabinet last month. Philpott resigned as Treasury Board president earlier this month, saying she had lost confidence in the government’s handling the SNC-Lavalin matter.

No civil war

But today, when asked if he faces civil war in the ranks, Trudeau insisted his team remains solidly intact.

“Because of the tremendous opportunity to vote as a team for 30 hours last week, where we watched the Conservatives voting against everything from support for women’s programs to support for our veterans to support for our military, our team has come out stronger and more united than ever before,” he told reporters in Winnipeg. 

PM Justin Trudeau responds to a question about Liberal party unity within his caucus after weeks of disruption by the SNC-Lavalin affair. 0:34

Trudeau’s remarks come as MPs on the Commons ethics committee prepare to vote on whether to hold hearings into the SNC-Lavalin affair.  The committee began its meeting at 1 p.m. ET and is carrying it live.

Conservative MP and ethics critic Peter Kent has drafted a motion to launch an inquiry, call Wilson-Raybould and Philpott to testify by April 5 and formally request that Trudeau broaden a waiver to allow them to speak freely.

The move comes after Liberal MPs used their majority on the Commons justice committee to shut down an inquiry, despite the opposition’s request to recall Wilson-Raybould to testify a second time. That sparked accusations of a coverup and prompted the Conservatives to stage a 31-hour voting marathon in the Commons in protest.

Kent said it’s now time for the ethics committee to search for answers.

“After Liberals on justice prematurely shut down their incomplete study, it became entirely appropriate for ethics to create a study of our own, to provide a safe and civil forum for Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott to address unanswered issues and speak to events and conversations beyond the narrow waiver offered initially by the prime minister,” he told CBC News. 

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s office is also carrying out an investigation. Kent said that probe will be “very narrow” due to the limits of the Conflict of Interest Act, while the Conservative motion would lead to a “much broader study of ethical issues in the PM’s ongoing corruption scandal.”

Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon said the ongoing “frenzy” is serving certain “political purposes” — she didn’t say whose — but it’s not serving the interests of Canadians. She conceded it is damaging the Liberal caucus.

“Teams are really fragile things. They take an awful lot of effort to build and to maintain,” she said.

“The trust inside a team is absolutely key. So yeah, it’s taken a bit of a hit, because these disagreements were taken outside of the party to air publicly.”

Trudeau’s caucus troubles aren’t quite limited to the SNC-Lavalin fallout. Last week, Ontario MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes quit the Liberal caucus and opted to sit as an Independent after the Globe and Mail published an interview in which she said Trudeau became hostile towards her after she told him she would not seek re-election.