Canada's finance minister doubled down on a carefully crafted government line related to the SNC-Lavalin affair on Thursday, a day after an explosive report by the ethics commissioner found that the prime minister broke the law.
Bill Morneau, a heavyweight supporter of Justin Trudeau's efforts to help the Montreal-based engineering and construction company avoid a criminal conviction, says he did nothing wrong by seeking to protect Canadian jobs.
Morneau argued that repeatedly reminding then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould about the potential economic impact of a bribery trial and possible conviction for SNC-Lavalin was part of his job description.
"In my role as finance minister I will always be advocating on behalf of Canadians, on behalf of Canadians' jobs, on behalf of pensioners," Morneau told reporters following a downtown Toronto event on Thursday.
Morneau and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan were at Ryerson University to highlight government investments in scientific research, particularly a new equity, diversity and inclusion program.
The key role Morneau and several of his senior staff played in pressuring Wilson-Raybould is detailed in the Trudeau II report, released by Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion on Wednesday.
The report highlights meetings Morneau had with then-SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce, during the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as well as with Kevin Lynch, chairman of SNC's board and former chief of the privy council, during a November visit to Beijing.
Soon after the Davos meeting, the Dion report says, Morneau's director of policy, Justin To, had a follow-up meeting with Bruce and other SNC-Lavalin representatives in Ottawa, at which they presented him with "a confidential discussion document" supporting their argument that a plea deal would help the company maintain its head office in Canada and increase its Canadian workforce.
Morneau's chief of staff, Ben Chin, who is now working in the prime minister's office, contacted Wilson-Raybould's office in mid-August to ask if anything could be done to expedite the process of getting a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin, the report says.
In early September, Canada's public prosecution service informed SNC-Lavalin it would not offer a plea deal. At the Beijing meeting, Lynch was eager to communicate the company's concern that the director of public prosecutions had decided not to offer a remediation agreement, according to the report.
'That is not in fact the way that is written'
Morneau's 2018 budget bill, Bill C-74, deals with deferred prosecutions. It says that a prosecutor "must not consider the national economic interest, the potential effect on relations with a state other than Canada or the identity of the organization or individual involved" when considering offering a deferred prosecution to those "alleged to have committed an offence under section 3 or 4 of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act" (CFPOA).
SNC-Lavalin was charged in 2015 with contravening sections of that law and the Criminal Code for alleged bribery and fraud in connection with its activities in Libya from 2001 to 2011.
A working group on bribery at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development also noted earlier this year that prosecutors in countries that have joined the Anti-Bribery Convention, such as Canada, cannot consider "political factors such as a country’s national economic interest" in investigations.
A criminal conviction would mean the company couldn't bid on federal contracts for a decade. A deferred prosecution, on the other hand, would spare the company such sanctions, provided that it take certain actions like co-operating with other investigations and acknowledging wrongdoing.
Asked about how his use of the lost-jobs argument fits with a law that explicitly precludes “economic interest” considerations, Morneau replied: "That is actually incorrect, that is not in fact the way that is written."
'That is the job of all members of Parliament'
Duncan, who was standing next to Morneau amid a small group of reporters, interjected to add: "That is the job of all members of Parliament."
"Our jobs are to stand up for our people, to stand up for jobs, to stand up for their livelihoods, to stand up for their communities," Duncan said.
Duncan also argued that Dion "took a strong view that any contact with the attorney general was improper." She then added, "We disagree with that."
Morneau's defence echoed that of Trudeau, who said on Wednesday that he believes his actions in the SNC-Lavalin affair were justified.
It also comes as Conservative MP Peter Kent sought to call Dion and others to answer questions at Parliament's ethics committee about the "grave situation".
"Canadians deserve fulsome answers to the many remaining questions," Kent and fellow MP Jacques Gourde wrote to committee chair Bob Zimmer.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called on the RCMP to investigate Trudeau.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus also stated on Twitter that he had written to Zimmer calling for an emergency meeting of the ethics committee in response to Dion's report.
The Liberal-dominated committee blocked a new SNC-Lavalin probe earlier this year.