Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed poor communications and an “erosion of trust” between his former top adviser and Jody Wilson-Raybould for the SNC-Lavalin controversy that has rocked the Liberal government.
At a news conference Thursday in Ottawa, Trudeau said he tasked his staff members to engage Wilson-Raybould on the file while she was justice minister to stress the potential impact of her decision. In hindsight, he said he should have reached out “personally” on the crucial matter instead of dispatching staff.
He said an erosion of trust developed between his then principal secretary, Gerry Butts, and Wilson-Raybould.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust, and as prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been,” he said.
Trudeau also pointed to a breakdown in communications.
He confirmed Wilson-Raybould told him of her decision not to intervene and order a remediation agreement as an alternative to criminal prosecution on Sept. 17, 2018, but he asked her to revisit that decision and she said she would.
Officials reached out to her in the subsequent months because he considered her to still be “open” to listening and considering other opinions on what her decision could be. Trudeau said Wilson-Raybould never told him she believed those contacts were inappropriate pressure.
“She did not come to me, and I wish she had.”
While he tries to foster open dialogue with cabinet and caucus members, Trudeau acknowledged he could have done a better job.
“That is something I’m having to reflect on as a leader, and that I’m looking forward to improving on as we go forward,” he said.
Trudeau said in that Sept. 17 meeting, he referenced he was the MP for Papineau, Que., but denied he was making pressing her based on partisan interests. He said Canadians can be assured the integrity of institutions or judicial independence was never compromised.
The prime minister said the file is a complex one, because SNC-Lavalin is a major employer and creator of spinoff jobs, yet is facing serious criminal charges.
“These are the types of situations that make governing a challenge. And when there’s an erosion of trust within the people involved, it further complicates what is an already difficult decision for the attorney general,” he said.
Trudeau said he has asked for a set of external set of opinions on the dual role of the justice minister and attorney general, as well as the operating policies for cabinet ministers and staff related to dealings on judicial matters.
“Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having dealt with these issues,” he said.
The controversy has generated much debate around whether the justice minister and attorney general roles should be split to ensure the independence of the attorney general is never compromised by politics.
PM speaks after Butts testimony
His statement comes a day after Butts testified before the Commons justice committee. Butts also blamed the crisis engulfing the Liberal government on a breakdown in trust and communications that led to the resignations of two top cabinet ministers.
Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, who stepped down as Treasury Board president in the wake of Wilson-Raybould’s resignation as Veterans Affairs minister, remain in the Liberal caucus. Wilson-Raybould was made Veterans Affairs minister during a cabinet shuffle in January.
Butts presented a starkly different version of events than Wilson-Raybould, also attorney general at the time she was dealing with the SNC-Lavalin file. Wilson-Raybould said she endured intense political pressure and veiled threats to overturn the director of public prosecution’s decision to proceed with criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
The Quebec-based international engineering and construction company faces bribery charges related to contracts in Libya. A conviction could lead to a 10-year ban on bidding for federal contracts.
Butts insisted all engagements were above board and in normal in the course of government operations.
CBC News reported that Trudeau huddled up for high-level discussions Tuesday to determine next steps in the ongoing SNC-Lavalin controversy.
On Thursday, he was asked why he didn’t leave Wilson-Raybould in the justice portfolio when he shuffled his cabinet Jan. 14 and if he regretted moving her to Veterans Affairs.
“As we look back at the past weeks, there are many lessons to be learned, and many things that we would have liked to do differently, and that is certainly part of the reflection we need to have going forward,” he said.
“But in terms of how we move forward and how we make decisions on who and where within cabinet, those decisions are ones we take seriously, and we always look to move forward, not backward on that.”
This story originally appeared on CBC