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View Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Profile
Lib. (ON)
When I was first made vice-chair of this committee I don't think anyone realized how popular we'd be. Welcome, everyone.
I have two points of clarification. First, when Ms. Raitt talks about procedural fairness, of course, a decision-maker owes procedural fairness to the subject of an investigation. It's not the other way around. Second, to the point about silencing Ms. Wilson-Raybould, I watched hours of testimony before the justice committee. I read 43 pages of testimony, at the the very end of which she said she had nothing more to add to the process. Those are my two points of clarification.
I am not supporting this motion because of any.... Mr. Scheer was in my riding yesterday, and I want to be clear that I'm not supporting this motion because of any purported grassroots Conservative campaign. I got 10 emails from my riding. That's not what motivated me. I will be supporting this motion, though, to invite the commissioner to discuss his report, one, in the interests of transparency and accountability and, two, because in my own considered view, I think the Ethics Commissioner's conclusions are legally flawed in many respects and I'd like to ask him some questions about his legal mistakes.
I've given a lot of thought to what happened. I've read what feels like a never-ending set of materials and coverage, and in the interest of making probably nobody happy, I want to share a few of my own conclusions, a number of which I've shared publicly before.
First and generally, it is both true that the then-attorney general did not exercise sufficient due diligence on the file and that the PMO, at the same time, exerted pressure that should not have been exerted.
The Shawcross doctrine states that an Attorney General may, but is not obliged to, consult with colleagues in the government, and indeed, it would be a mistake in some cases not to consult. A 2014 general directive states that “it is quite appropriate for the Attorney General to consult with Cabinet colleagues before exercising his or her powers under the DPP Act in respect of criminal proceedings. Indeed, sometimes it will be important to do so in order to be cognisant of pan-government perspectives.” Moreover, in examining the evidence, McLellan's report is also clear that the Attorney General could have engaged in conversations with the DPP. She suggested that she could have asked for more information and solicited a second opinion.
Now to understand all public policy considerations here—and I take Ms. May's point that there was not a sufficient economic impact analysis—I'll tell you that if Ms. May or I or perhaps Mr. Kent were the Attorney General, the right course of action would have been to request an economic impact analysis from the finance minister or a third party when you have a section 13 public interest notice from your DPP. While Commissioner Dion was right that these considerations should not bear on his strict analysis under the act, they do colour the overall situation, and the deputy minister's comments in testimony to Dion raised the same concerns for me.
At the same time, Dion's report in its factual findings made clear that the PMO exerted pressure that should not have been exerted. The Shawcross doctrine is clear that the government is not to pressure the Attorney General at all for any reason, and McLellan's recommendations to establish new protocols for existing standards are themselves an acknowledgement that what took place should not have happened.
It is important that the Prime Minister has acknowledged that mistakes were made, and I trust that McLellan's recommendations will be implemented.
Third, I know that my Conservative colleagues, and perhaps all colleagues on the other side, will disagree with me, but personally, having thought about this a lot, I think the reaction and outrage about this situation have been disproportionate to these original mistakes of improper pressure, and I'll give three reasons.
First, in my view, a DPA should have been considered more seriously. Organizations are made up of good and bad people. When bad people do bad things in those organizations, they should be held criminally responsible to the fullest extent of the law, but the good people in those organizations, the innocent employees, so long as the organization has reformed its practices, should not suffer as a result.
Second, given that this was a new law and the Attorney General had never intervened under the DPP Act, getting a second opinion from former chief justice McLachlin made sense to me. I disagree with Dion's finding that there was any tantamount direction, but from what I read in his report, I can see that there were repeated efforts to ask for a second opinion—and proper repeated efforts to ask for a second opinion. Where I disagreed in reading his report was that I could see no evidence that the analysis or advice of Chief Justice McLachlin was in any way predetermined. He made that factual finding, which I think is an incorrect one. A second opinion from a respected jurist would have been reasonable.
Last, in the end there would always have been a great deal of transparency even if the Attorney General had succumbed to that improper pressure and changed her mind. McLellan notes that with the creation of the DPP in 2006—one of the very few things I will say that the former Conservative government did well—the federal justice system has undergone the most significant organizational change in the last half-century and that any decision by the Attorney General to intervene must be in writing and public. Again, McLellan notes that its use would bring a high degree of public and political scrutiny.
Last and related, I do not accept Dion's findings that there was a conflict of interest. In my view, that conclusion is legally incorrect.
Mr. Weir, you have highlighted some of the reasons why. The Prime Minister and his staff, and you can read it in Dion's report, on multiple occasions were referencing jobs. We can question the evidentiary foundations of their intentions, but their intentions.... In the conversations with Gerry Butts, the conversations with the staffers, or Mr. Trudeau himself, they are saying, “We care about protecting jobs”, and Dion documents multiple instances of this. So they were standing up for jobs, albeit with mistakes in doing so, but in my opinion, having read the evidence, they were standing up in the public interest. At no time were they improperly furthering a private interest under the act. There was a breach of Shawcross but not a conflict of interest.
A conflict would occur if, as a public office holder, I further a family member's interest, a friend's interest, my own interest—or, in any basic statutory interpretation where we read the act consistently with reference to other parts of the act and the purpose of the act, we would find that basket clause that one ought not to improperly further a similar interest.
Conflicts are inherent. They demand recusal. They are unchanged actually by proper or improper pressure. Making mistakes to stand up for the public interest is not a conflict, though it was a breach of the Shawcross doctrine. The commissioner's analysis and conclusions are, in my own view, legally wrong on this point.
To the extent that partisan considerations, because those are mentioned on four occasions in the report, were brought to bear, first, no one should have brought these concerns, and in fact McLellan's protocol would prevent any politically exempt staff from participating in any conversations going forward.
Of course, Mr. Trudeau said, “I'm the member for Papineau.” His own evidence to the commissioner was anchored in his experience with his constituents and his understanding of the negative consequences of layoffs for communities. I'll tell you, if Andrew Scheer is elected and stands up for dairy farmers, or if I continue to stand up for animals, or if the member for Oshawa had said, “You know what, I'm the member for Oshawa and I'm concerned about the GM plant closing”, or if I say to Bill Blair, “I'm the member for Beaches—East York, and you're damn right, we have to do something about gun violence”, it's not so clear that these are always partisan considerations.
As McLellan cites one respected scholar, and I think we can all, as partisan politicians, acknowledge this, in many instances the approach that is taken may benefit the public while also serving partisan interests. Lastly, public opinion will be the final arbiter of whether the primary motivation is non-partisan—and yes, motivations do matter.
In my view, the primary motivation in this instance was to protect the public interest in jobs. The public interest was pursued improperly but at no time did the Prime Minister improperly further a private interest. The commissioner is legally wrong, and I would like him to sit right there so he could answer questions about how he got this analysis so completely wrong.
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