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SNC Lavalin: What would Sir Wilfrid do?

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SNC Lavalin: What would Sir Wilfrid do?

Having lived all my life in Quebec, I can imagine where the SNC Lavalin affair is headed next. Like almost anything in Canada, it will become a source of French-English resentment. SNC is a great Quebec company, the narrative will go, a jewel in the Quebec, Inc. crown. The former Minister of Justice and Attorney General—or MOJAG, as she refers to herself in transcripts of her text messages with her COS (Chief of Staff)—is a unilingual anglophone from British Columbia. Anglophones, the story will continue, are unreasonably rigid about questions of corruption. The more worldly Gallic approach is that (shall we say) facilitation of one kind or other may sometimes be necessary, especially in places like Gaddafi’s Libya, if business is to be done at all. To think otherwise is naive and boy-scoutish. The decision to prosecute SNC Lavalin, rather than provide it with the Deferred Prosecution Agreement that, thanks in large part to its own lobbying, is now available as an alternative to full-blown trial, is therefore tantamount to persecution.

To play devil’s advocate for just a moment, one permanent responsibility of the prime minister of Canada is to avoid dust-ups between its two founding peoples. If the management of SNC warned the PMO, as it very much sounds it did, that proceeding with a prosecution would cause it either to move its headquarters outside Canada or even to fail altogether, a responsible PMO would have to weigh that possibility. It would first have to decide whether the threat was credible. (I have no way of judging.) If it concluded it was, it would have to try to gauge the likely impact, not just on jobs, but on politics writ large, in terms of the effect on English-French, Quebec-Rest of Canada relations.

It’s not the PMO’s or the Government of Canada’s fault that SNC has totemic importance in Quebec, but it does. It’s not impossible to imagine that a government seized with this problem would in turn seize on a DPA—an apology, restructured practices, and a fine big enough to be a serious disincentive—as a reasonable way of getting an anti-corruption message across while at the same time limiting the damage to Canadian federalism. All the while, it goes without saying, some corners of the PMO would also be calculating the likely effects of different choices on Liberal Party fortunes—politics writ small. Such considerations should not have been allowed into the discussions but, let’s not kid ourselves, they would have been at the front of many discussants’ minds.

I suspect Sir Wilfrid Laurier, original practitioner of the “sunny ways” the current prime minister professes but doesn’t always practice, would have recommended this approach. Laurier was a lifelong champion of compromise and accommodation between what used to be called the founding “races” of Canada. Get the message across, punish the firm, but do not risk destroying it, may well have seemed a reasonable compromise to him. I also suspect that once his MOJAG had made up her mind, Sir Wilfrid, a devoted admirer of the British constitution, would have stood back and let her get on with it (though of course in his day MOJAG would not have been a she.)

One way in which Sir Wilfrid would have had the advantage over our current prime minister is that he was a liberal of the old school, the 19th-century variety, steeped in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. He did run into difficulty with individual business firms, railways in particular. But the liberalism of his day favoured a division between business and government. Businesses should compete with one another. May the best business win. And the government should confine itself to providing a legal and fiscal framework within which business in general could thrive. But to identify the fortunes of any particular business with the common weal he would have considered an error.

In our day and age, separation of business and state is a principle honoured only in the breach. Quebec is regarded as being particularly enthusiastic about developing national champion businesses and “incubating” winning firms that then embody the national will of Quebecers. But this sort of thing is commonplace everywhere now, albeit not always done with the panache achieved in Quebec.

The ribbons politicians so enjoy cutting as they hand out grants, and loans that turn into grants only seem to be cuttable. In fact, they end up binding the fortunes of governments and firms in ways that both should by now understand can lead to disaster.

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