OTTAWA — Former cabinet minister Jane Philpott fanned the flames of the SNC-Lavalin fire Thursday as Liberals struggled to douse the controversy and focus Canadians' attention on their pre-election budget.
Philpott gave an interview to Maclean's magazine in which she said there is "much more to the story" of improper pressure allegedly exerted on former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to avert a criminal prosecution of Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
The early-morning publication of the interview coincided with a Conservative-orchestrated filibuster, landing like a bombshell in the House of Commons where exhausted MPs were in their 12th hour of non-stop voting, line by line, on the government's spending plans. The filibuster, which continued until almost 1 a.m. Friday, was intended to protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's refusal to offer a blanket waiver of privilege and confidentiality that Wilson-Raybould has claimed is necessary if she is to fully tell her side of the story.
Late Thursday afternoon, Conservatives believed they had caught the Liberals shorthanded, with not enough of them ready to vote to pass one item. Since spending votes are confidence measures, the government would have fallen had any of the spending measures been defeated.
Liberals quickly flooded into the chamber, male MPs hastily doing up their neckties for decorum. Assistant deputy speaker Anthony Rota, an Ontario Liberal then in the chair, cited a Commons rule to say that it's not the speaker's duty to police whether members were in the chamber at the critical time to be eligible to vote. Liberals eventually carried the motion, as opposition MPs heckled.
Philpott, who resigned early this month as Treasury Board president, told Maclean's that she raised concerns with Trudeau, during a Jan. 6 discussion about an imminent cabinet shuffle, that Wilson-Raybould was being moved out of Justice because of her refusal to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case.
"I think Canadians might want to know why I would have raised that with the prime minister a month before the public knew about it. Why would I have felt that there was a reason why Minister Wilson-Raybould should not be shuffled?" she said. "My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole story."
But Philpott actually appears to already be free to talk about that Jan. 6 conversation with Trudeau: The government has waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality for last fall, when Wilson-Raybould alleges she was improperly pressured, until Jan. 14, when she was moved to the Veterans Affairs portfolio. The waiver applies not just to Wilson-Raybould but to "any persons who directly participated in discussions with her" relating to the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for alleged corrupt practices in Libya.
That waiver allowed Wilson-Raybould to testify for nearly four hours before the House of Commons justice committee.
Trudeau rejected Thursday the opposition parties' contention, echoed by Philpott, that a broader waiver is required to cover the period between Jan. 14 and Wilson-Raybould's resignation from cabinet a month later.
"It was extremely important that the former attorney general be allowed to share completely her perspectives, her experiences on this issue, and that is what she was able to do," he said after an announcement in Mississauga, pumping up the latest budget's promise to invest $2.2 billion more in municipal infrastructure projects.
"The issue at question is the issue of pressure around the Lavalin issue while she was attorney general and she got to speak fully to that."
Trudeau also gave his version of the Jan. 6 conversation with Philpott, during which he informed her she would be moving to Treasury Board and that Wilson-Raybould would be taking her place at Indigenous Services. His version echoed the testimony of his former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, to the justice committee.
"She asked me directly if this was in link to the SNC-Lavalin decision and I told her no, it was not," Trudeau said. "She then mentioned it might be a challenge for Jody Wilson-Raybould to take on the role of Indigenous Services and I asked her for her help, which she gladly offered to give, in explaining to Jody Wilson-Raybould how exciting this job was and what a great thing it would be for her to have that role."
Wilson-Raybould ultimately turned down the move to Indigenous Services and Trudeau moved her instead to Veterans Affairs. She resigned a month later.
Neither Philpott nor Wilson-Raybould voted Wednesday on a Conservative motion calling for a broader waiver. Nor did they speak during debate on the motion in the Commons, where anything they said would have been protected by parliamentary privilege.
While she conceded speaking up in the Commons is "technically possible," Philpott told Maclean's that debates wouldn't give the ex-ministers the "hours of time" needed to fully tell their stories.
Since any vote involving government spending is automatically a confidence vote, Liberals were required to be out in force throughout the all-night, all-day voting marathon to avoid potential defeat of the government. But although Philpott and Wilson-Raybould remain members of the Liberal caucus, they were exempted from having to show up, in the interests of not exacerbating tensions with their sleep-deprived colleagues.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel construed that as further evidence of a "culture of intimidation" against the former ministers who've "been put under a gag order" by Trudeau.
"I find it really difficult to watch as two strong female colleagues continue to be shut down," she said.
However, Trudeau continued to try to paper over tensions among Liberal caucus members, even after Philpott's intervention added fuel to the fire. He continued to say the ex-ministers are welcome to remain in the Liberal caucus, despite their criticisms of him just seven months before an election. While they disagree over the SNC-Lavalin matter, Trudeau said all Liberals are united on the "big things" like investing in the middle class, fighting climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pounced on Philpott's interview to bolster his call for a public inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
"If the prime minister and the Liberal government has nothing to hide, why don't they waive all solicitor-client privilege and call for all witnesses to testify and answer all questions that Canadians have. If they have nothing to hide, why won't they do that?" Singh said.
The filibuster resulted in the cancellation of Thursday's question period and scheduled debate on government bills. Committee meetings were also cancelled as the filibuster continued into the night with no end in sight.
Only a couple of dozen opposition MPs needed to be in the chamber at one time so they had plenty of opportunity to grab a few hours of sleep.
The Liberals, however, were forced to keep most of their MPs in the chamber at all times, to avoid being caught short on any of the votes.
Most Liberal MPs had laptops on their desks and appeared to be doing work, reading or, in some cases, watching movies. A few read books. One, Toronto-area MP Jennifer O'Connell, sat with a blanket wrapped around her legs. They were periodically allowed to leave the chamber to catch a few winks on cots, as reinforcements replaced them.
The Conservatives periodically offered to end the vote marathon, if Trudeau would agree to waive confidentiality and let Wilson-Raybould and all others involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair testify fully. The Liberals rejected each offer and the voting resumed.