Politics·CANADA VOTES

Will the SNC-Lavalin scandal turn off voters?

In this week’s Canada Votes newsletter: How could the ethics commissioner's report affect the election? Plus: Éric Grenier takes a look at how the polls could shift and we answer your question about gun control.

The Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion released a report Wednesday about the SNC-Lavalin affair, finding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was guilty of violating the Conflict of Interest Act. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Will the ethics commissioner's report matter in this election?

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power and Politics

Before you start yelling at me, the short answer is: I don't know!

I'm not an expert, I'm just an observer — but a keenly interested one. And throughout the SNC-Lavalin affair, as it's often called, I've observed a few things.

First, people are realllllly mad about it. On both "sides." I have a very technical way of figuring this out. I take a look at my hate mail, see what people are mad at me about and voila, reach my conclusion. Pure science. Trust me when I say this controversy has generated more hate mail than anything I've ever seen before. 

When tweeting details of the ethics commissioner's report, by way of example, I was called obnoxious, irrelevant, a "Libtard" and a Conservative mouthpiece. These are the pleasantries this issue brings out in people, but they are also why it's difficult to predict what kind of an impact the controversy will have on the election.

A lot of people have decided what they believe; either former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was standing up for the rule of law, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was standing up for Canadian jobs. By the end of March, I'd guess, a lot of people had picked one or the other.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould in Ottawa, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

So I wonder if the ethics report, which concluded that Trudeau had contravened section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act, will convince anyone to change their mind?

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is an independent officer of Parliament, and he says the prime minister tried to unduly influence Wilson-Raybould to further the private interests of SNC-Lavalin. But Dion also tied any discussion of the public interest to the private interests of SNC-Lavalin, which is what the prime minister says he fundamentally disagrees with. 

There's a lot more to it — but that's what the report essentially comes down to. 

I think where the story goes now will help dictate what kind of impact it has in October. There's an ethics committee meeting next week — the opposition wants to call witnesses, such as Dion, to testify about the report. But the Liberals hold the majority on the committee, so there's a big question mark hanging over that one. 

The opposition will talk about this a lot during the campaign and the lead-up to it, but as one Conservative told me shortly after the report was released; "If only this happened on Oct. 18."

Besides the fact that this report dropped in the middle of the summer, timing in general matters in elections. We're still two months out from one, and the things people think about when voting can change many times. Not only on big picture items like affordability, climate change and the economy — but stuff that happens during campaigns. The refugee crisis and Alan Kurdi in the last election and the emergence of the niqab as an election issue in 2015 are both examples that come to mind. 

Both opposition parties tell me they're playing it a lot more careful than they did when the story first broke — they don't want to overplay their hand. The Conservatives will make it all about labelling Trudeau a "guy you can't trust" and the NDP will aim to lump both the Conservatives and Liberals together as parties that help corporations ahead of regular Canadians. 

If the ethics commissioner's conclusions are going to hurt the Liberals in this election, it will be around the prime minister's own brand. Because it was so central in the last election, it will be scrutinized in this one. The promise to do politics differently resonated because a lot of people were tired of the way it's always been done. The promise to hold himself to a higher ethical standard than those who came before him resonated because people want politicians to be ethical.

Will Canadians who hadn't made up their mind on the SNC controversy be turned off if they feel the prime minister didn't live up to those promises? Even if they are turned off, will they turn to another leader? I'm not sure and the truth of it is: I won't be until election day. 

In the meantime, I will continue my obnoxious and irrelevant existence. T-minus 64 days!

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.


Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panellists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaro  president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance

Liberals will stay resolutely focused at events across Canada next week on a positive plan to invest in the middle class and contrast that plan with Conservative cuts. As the prime minister prepares to head to this month's G7 summit, they will also be highlighting the progress the government has made to stand up for Canadian jobs, secure progressive free trade agreements, and make life better and more affordable for Canadian families.

Rachel Curran  senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will be focused next week on continuing calls for accountability following the ethics commissioner's bombshell finding that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule a decision denying a deferred prosecution agreement to Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. As part of that effort, Conservatives will be calling for an emergency meeting of the ethics committee to hear directly from the commissioner.

Kathleen Monk  principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group

New Democrats will remind Canadians that, whether it's the Liberals or Conservatives in power, they both focus on making life easy for their insider friends. The ethics commissioner's report on the SNC-Lavalin affair proves that old-line parties consistently put corporate interests before people. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will show how the NDP will do things differently by putting people first.


Poll Tracker takeaway 

Éric Grenier's weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

Back in February, the SNC-Lavalin affair robbed the Liberals of their lead in the polls — a lead they haven't yet recovered in the aggregate.

But the controversy didn't hit the Liberals' polling numbers uniformly across the country.

The Liberals hit a low of 29.6 per cent in the Poll Tracker on May 3. Compared to Feb. 5, the last update before the story was first reported by the Globe and Mail, that meant a loss of 7.9 percentage points.

The biggest loss, however, took place in Atlantic Canada. The Liberals dropped nearly 17 points there. They also dropped nine points in Quebec, eight in the Prairies, six in Alberta, five in Ontario and just four in British Columbia.

Since that low point, however, the Liberals have rebounded from coast to coast — or at least they had before this week. The Poll Tracker, which this week only includes data gathered before Wednesday's scathing report by the ethics commissioner, shows the Liberals now at 32.7 per cent.

That's up 3.1 points from their lowest ebb, putting them just one point behind the Conservatives. The gap was 7.3 points on May 3.

Just as the Liberals fell furthest in Atlantic Canada, that is also where they have had the biggest rebound. The party is up nearly seven points in the region since May 3. They are also up four points in Alberta, three in Ontario and the Prairies and two in B.C. and Quebec.

So the Liberals have regained most of the support they lost only in Alberta and Ontario. While in Alberta that might put just two seats back into their column, in Ontario that number is around 20. For that reason, the Liberals are now favoured in the seat projection over the Conservatives.

But this also means that in the Prairies, B.C., Quebec and Atlantic Canada the Liberals haven't yet managed to bring back into the fold most of the voters they lost over the last few months.

Last week's news is unlikely to make that task any easier.

(Eric Grenier/CBC)

Tap here to go to the Canada Votes Poll Tracker


Ask us

Samantha Grills emailed us this question:  I'd appreciate greater clarity on where each of the parties stand on firearm control and specifically the debate around banning handguns and/or assault-style firearms.  

Toronto is in the throes of a gun-related crime crisis with the city poised to post a record number of shootings by year's end.

Toronto Police have identified more than 401 victims of shootings this year alone — a 19 per cent increase over 2018, a year when the deadly Danforth shooting rocked Toronto's east side. There were 14 separate shootings over the August long weekend alone. And it's not just urban areas grappling with this issue — there's been a spike in rural gun-related homicides in recent years. According to Statistics Canada, six in 10 homicides are carried out with a handgun.

Most politicians agree that something needs to be done to address this alarming level of violence, but the policy prescriptions differ depending on the political ideology.

In the 2015 federal election, the Liberal Party promised to "take action to get handguns and assault weapons off our streets," and repeal some of the former Conservative government's changes to the firearms regime that they said made it too easy for the wrong people to get their hands on guns.

They delivered on some of those promised reforms in Bill C-71, a piece of government legislation that enhances background checks for would-be firearms owners — the checks now encompass a person's entire life history rather than the previous standard of the last five years. This is designed to prevent criminals and spousal abusers from getting their hands on a gun.

The legislation also forces retailers to maintain log books of all firearms sales with many more details recorded — make and model but also an individual's licence number — to help police investigations. Ottawa also changed the authorization to transport (ATT) regime so that gun owners would need permission from the provincial firearms officer to take a restricted firearm anywhere other than an approved range. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale also budgeted hundreds of millions more dollars for the country's police to tackle gang-related gun violence.

For many gun control advocates, the changes simply didn't go far enough to satisfy that election commitment to get guns "off our streets." They have pointed to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's quick action after the Christchurch mosque massacre as political leadership to be emulated by the likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Those advocates are clamouring for an outright handgun ban to tackle a troubling spike in gun crime. Some Liberals MPs have been more vocal than others demanding an aggressive federal response. Toronto-area MP Adam Vaughan has said he's tired of stepping over bloody crime scenes in his downtown riding.

"I've buried more kids in my riding than I have been to funerals in my own family. At some point those lives have to mean something. I'm not going to sit by and bury more people," Vaughan said in an interview with me in 2018.

In a recent interview with CBC Radio's The House, Vaughan said he's hopeful the Liberal party will promise a ban in its 2019 platform.

"I think we'll see it in the platform. I think we'll prosecute the argument with Canadians through an election, we'll get a mandate to act," he said.

Marco Mendicino, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of infrastructure, suggested this week there could be more urban-specific measures in the works to help cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal (where city councils have requested a federal ban) enact their own bans. Mendicino said the Liberals need another mandate from the people in the fall election to go further than Bill C-71.

"I think we've been unambiguous that we want to tackle this problem," Mendicino said in an interview with Vassy Kapelos, adding he personally supports a "targeted city hand gun ban."

To act on such a plan, he said, the federal government would need co-operation from the provinces. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is opposed to a ban.

Despite the push, a federal government-commissioned report — compiled through focus groups and online surveys — found Canadians have decidedly mixed feelings about an outright handgun ban.

Border Security and Organized Crime Minister Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, has been coy about enacting such a ban, saying he wants to strike the right balance between public safety and protecting responsible gun owners. He has also said dispossessing people of their handguns would be a costly exercise for the federal treasury.

Instead of a handgun ban, Blair has suggested a re-elected Liberal government might focus its energies on limiting access to assault-style firearms — a class of weapons that is not currently defined in Canadian law — that look like military weapons and can be easily manipulated to make use of high-capacity magazines. (Unlike in the U.S., high-capacity magazines are already banned in Canada.)

"There are some weapons, quite frankly, in my opinion, that are so dangerous that there really is no place in a safe and civil society for them, and I think there are measures we can take to make those guns just generally unacceptable and inaccessible," Blair said of assault-style weapons.  

The Conservatives maintain any such ban will do nothing to protect Canadians because criminals don't follow the country's existing gun laws — not to mention the vast majority of crime guns involve illegal firearms smuggled across the Canada-U.S. border.

They have been critical of much of Bill C-71, particularly the retail record-keeping changes and the end of the "automatic ATT."

Gun rights advocates say the legislation was strictly a political move designed to punish legal owners because no criminal has ever applied for an ATT to carry out a gun crime. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said he'd repeal Bill C-71 if elected.

"For four years, the Liberals have failed to address gun crime. Instead, their policies senselessly target law-abiding gun owners," Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt said in a statement to CBC News.

"Criminals do not register their firearms, and they will not comply with arbitrary bans. Conservatives will take practical steps to keep Canadians safe," she said.

How will they do that? Through a tough-on-crime agenda that will end automatic bail for gang members; revoke parole for gang members; enact tougher sentences for gang members; send people who smuggle firearms to prison; create a new Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) taskforce on cross-border gun smuggling and commit new money to policing.

The gun rights community is an important voter bloc for the Conservatives, particularly in rural areas. The Tory promise to end the long-gun registry — which covered non-restricted firearms like shotguns — mobilized many voters to the Conservative fold and helped elect former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The NDP has said there needs to be a more holistic approach to tackling gun violence, including more supports for housing and mental health and solutions to end racial inequalities. In addition, it has said the government should roll out monies already committed for gun crime right away (much of Goodale's anti-gang funding is back-loaded to later years).

In an August 2018 letter to the prime minister, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the federal government should also empower municipalities to enact their own handgun laws.

"The federal government should not stand in the way of municipal leaders who know their communities best, and want to ban these weapons to keep their residents safe," Singh said.

– John Paul Tasker, senior writer  

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we'll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.


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The 2019 election campaign is already underway — the CBC News Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21.

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