Politics·Analysis

The RCMP's chat with Jody Wilson-Raybould stirs echoes of painful Liberal past

The news on Friday that the former minister of justice and attorney general spoke with someone from the national police force in the spring punctuates another difficult moment for Justin Trudeau's government.

On the eve of the 2019 campaign, a flashback to the election of 2006

The news that Jody Wilson-Raybould has spoken to the RCMP brings bad tidings for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the lead up to the federal election, even though it is unlikely an invesgitation was ever pursued. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

That the RCMP spoke with Jody Wilson-Raybould is not evidence of a crime — Wilson-Raybould herself has said that she does not believe a crime occurred during the SNC-Lavalin affair. It is not even necessarily evidence of an active or official investigation. In fact, there is reason to believe an investigation was not pursued.

But the news on Friday that the former minister of justice and attorney general spoke with someone from the national police force in the spring punctuates another difficult moment for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government. 

And it stirs echoes of the events, nearly 14 years ago, that doomed the last Liberal government.

The fact that Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion proceeded with, and completed, his investigation would seem to suggest that the RCMP has not been actively pursuing the matter. The Conflict of Interest Act dictates that the commissioner "shall immediately suspend an examination" if it is discovered that the subject of his investigation is also the subject of a police investigation.

In 2014, for instance, the ethics commissioner suspended an investigation into the Mike Duffy affair once it became clear that the RCMP was investigating the same people and events.

Dion is also obligated to suspend his investigation and notify the relevant authorities if he has reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed.

In regard to the SNC-Lavalin affair, it is unknown whether the RCMP spoke to anyone other than Wilson-Raybould. According to a spokesman for the prime minister, no one from the Prime Minister's Office has spoken with the RCMP. 

It is possible, at least in theory, that Dion's report on Wednesday added some new piece of information that could tweak the RCMP's interest — a spokeswoman for the police force said this week that the RCMP is "examining this matter carefully."

But it's also possible that the RCMP, for the sake of doing their due diligence, spoke with Wilson-Raybould and soon thereafter decided that no further action was warranted.

The suggestion of wrongdoing

But the unresolved hint of an official investigation can be a politically dangerous thing.

In the fall of 2005, suspicious stock market activity raised concerns that details of the federal government's decision to not tax income trusts had been leaked and exploited. An NDP MP, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, asked the RCMP to investigate.

Four weeks later, in the middle of a federal election campaign, the commissioner of the RCMP sent a letter to Wasylycia-Leis to tell her that the force had reviewed the matter and decided to commence a criminal investigation. 

After the NDP publicized the letter, the RCMP issued a news release that specifically referred to Ralph Goodale, the finance minister at the time. 

The Liberals, still struggling to shake off the sponsorship scandal, were suddenly faced with another suggestion of wrongdoing. Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, called on Goodale to resign. The Conservatives, who had been trailing the Liberals, took a lead in opinion polls that they would not relinquish, winning power in January 2006 and holding government for nearly a decade.

The RCMP and headlines

The post-script is probably worth keeping in mind.

The RCMP's investigation ultimately resulted in charges against a public servant in the finance department. But Goodale was cleared of wrongdoing. By then he and the Liberals were sitting on the opposition side of the House of Commons.

A review by the RCMP's complaints commissioner later found that the police force's policies for dealing with such situations were inadequate.

"I am recommending that the RCMP develop a specific policy concerning disclosure of information relating to highly sensitive investigations," the commissioner wrote. "This policy should include clear guidelines and be based upon a rebuttable presumption against disclosure." 

The RCMP could be in another difficult spot now, with an election campaign just days away. So long as even the possibility of an official investigation exists, Conservatives and New Democrats might publicly hold it over the Liberals' collective heads. Ideally, if the RCMP has decided (or does decide) to not pursue the matter, it might find a way to say so before the writ is officially dropped next month.

For the Liberals, it is at least another reminder to avoid getting themselves into situations such as this. One thing leads to another and suddenly the letters R, C, M and P are in the headlines.

In a court of law, everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence. But politics is not generally concerned with such niceties. 

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