The “public interest,” it turns out, can be a real threat to democracy.
It is, after all, the catchphrase that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used to justify his contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act by pressuring former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin. The PM’s spin on the whole thing is that he was simply trying to save jobs in Quebec.
Let’s start by giving the PM the benefit of the doubt and forgetting that Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that SNC-Lavalin’s “considerable private financial interests would undoubtedly have been furthered had Mr. Trudeau successfully influenced the Attorney General in her decision to overturn the DPP’s decision relating to the company.”
Let’s forget that Dion also found that senior officials, under Trudeau’s direction, continued to communicate with SNC and Wilson-Raybould, albeit separately, even after the company filed for a judicial review of the Director of Public Prosecution’s decision to proceed with a criminal trial. These attempts, according to Dion, “included encouraging [Wilson-Raybould] to re-examine the possibility of obtaining external advice from ‘someone like’ a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
Let’s forget that “unbeknownst to the Attorney General at that time, legal opinions from two former Supreme Court justices, retained by SNC-Lavalin, had been reviewed by the Prime Minister’s Office and other ministerial offices.” And let’s forget that “both SNC-Lavalin and the Prime Minister’s Office had approached the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court [Beverley McLachlin] to participate in the matter.”
Yes, let’s forget all that and focus on the purity of Trudeau’s motives as rooted in the public interest, expressed as the desire to save jobs in Quebec — something which, with all the tools at its disposal, the government could supposedly affect only by rescuing an alleged lawbreaker from the consequences of its own actions.
And let’s not get confused between the public interest and the national interest. Here it bears noting that Hans Morgenthau, a major 20th century force in the study of international relations, equated the national interest with “survival against encroachments of other nation-states.”
But the public interest is not necessarily about survival. It’s a concept that expresses the paramountcy of the welfare of the general public as opposed to the welfare of private individuals or companies. It’s also a concept that evolves along with society and societal values. It’s contextual, and that’s why so many observers have cautioned against giving it a precise definition.
As Andrew Sparrow, the prominent political correspondent at The Guardian put it: “Fifty years ago it was assumed that there was a public interest in knowing that an MP was gay, but little or no public interest in whether he drove home drunk, hit his wife or furnished his house using wood from non-sustainable sources. Now, obviously, it’s the other way round.”
So, in the end the public interest is about value judgments and judgment calls, about weighing important principles all of which may have genuine claims on legitimacy, and then deciding which principle is the most important to contemporary society as a whole.
And therein lies Trudeau’s hubris.
I’m willing to believe that he meant well, that his actions were not criminal in nature and that he really is a caring person who frets about the loss of jobs. In fact, I’m willing to believe whatever he says about the whole sordid SNC-Lavalin affair.
The more I believe him, however, the more I realize that he is a leader who lacks judgment, or more generously whose judgment lapsed horrifically on this occasion (and perhaps in his acceptance of vacation benefits from Aga Khan and his sartorial choices on his visit to India). Because what I see is a man who — on the best view of things — somehow got himself to believe that the jobs of a few trumped (pun intended) principles are the cornerstone of democracy and therefore of our society’s survival.
Some might say Trudeau was trying to achieve a semblance of balance by pressuring the justice minister to adopt a deferred prosecution solution, one that both embraced a remedial, rehabilitative approach to wrongdoing while at the same time obviating the economic consequences to innocent workers.
But balance should never have intruded here. As important as jobs may be in real life, the importance of preserving them pales — no, disappears — beside the foundational nature of the Shawcross principle (the proper relationship between the attorney general and other members of the cabinet) and prosecutorial independence that the PM chose so blatantly to ignore.
Even worse, on being called to account, he invoked the very principle he had abused — the public interest — when he cited it in his defence. In doing so, he dishonoured yet another precept of democracy.
But does anyone care? It’s not like the Liberals have suffered in opinion polls since the ethics commissioner released his damning findings. The truth is that, for many of us, there’s much greater immediacy to the prospect of losing our jobs than pondering the fine points of constitutional law.
That’s why I believe the public interest, a pillar of democracy, can also be a threat to its survival — especially when our leaders abuse it and, as appears to be the case from the polls, a self-serving public does not condemn their conduct.