What really can be gained from a retrospective on the SNC affair and its impact on our next election?
Isn’t it interesting that so often the most obtuse or maybe oblique issues can become the biggest burr under one’s saddle? The Sponsorship Scandal is one that comes to mind. Watergate was so unnecessary when the election was already won. Jason Kenney and his alleged involvement in another candidate’s run for leadership seems almost storybook. But let me not digress too far… and I must acknowledge from the outset that my great uncle was leader of the Ontario Liberal party back in the 1930’s. He quit because of internal infighting led by Hepburn who he warned might win one election, but didn’t have the qualities to do more than that. My Uncle Will, a friend of MacKenzie King, then went on to serve for a while as an MP (his name and that of my great aunt’s can be seen on one of the table arrangements in King-Laurier House in Ottawa). I say all this to indicate that contrary to many I am not a natural anti-Liberal individual nor have I lived a life devoid of any interest in things political (I even won electoral contests in both high school and college for executive positions on Student Councils, and I sat in Model Parliaments and Model UN Assemblies & Security Councils!)
Nevertheless I am not sure I have ever witnessed such a bizarre performance as that put on by the Liberal MP’s and their aides in Ottawa. I am not going to address the issue of the Clerk of the Privy Council because I know him and have already had the conversation with a former colleague and friend of his who is both dear to me and well-understands the challenges that Deputy Ministers face on a daily basis. We held the conversation over several days and it has come to a draw (although in recent days, as I will discuss below, I’m thinking I have to revisit my perspective just slightly).
I’d like to say that both Andrew Coyne (National Post) and Graham Clark (Globe & Mail) have written very good pieces about this issue as has Conrad Black. And it is not my intention to simply repeat or even debate what they have said. Rather I am going to approach this in much the same way that I would in one of my ethics classes. Examining this all as a potential case study gives one the chance to step back, obtain a more comprehensive perspective and even second-guess the actors somewhat. If I were to give it all a title perhaps it would be: “Can an apology get you out in front of a calamity?” And in terms of my curricular interests a foundational question is: “What stage(s) of moral reasoning are in play?”
If I reflect on the main characters, I am willing (albeit cautiously) to grant the Principal Clerk (Michael Wernick) operates predominately at a Stage Five – even in the tape-recorded phone call he seems to be thinking in terms of the Golden Rule. He is carrying out the directives of his boss, but is doing so with the seeming intent that he would like a collaborative solution. That he doesn’t get it may be his inability to reason effectively at a Stage Three (wanting to be liked) or even Stage Two (let’s make a deal). But more on that later. For the moment, I simply want to say that Mr. Wernick suffered much more than he needed to – had he not had that rather pompous sermon during his opening speech at the House of Commons Committee meeting, he probably would have been listened to by all sides. He might even have had the opportunity to be a mediative moment in this entire affair.
Gerald Butts may be the “big picture” policy wonk but there is little evidence of that in his appearances and in his resignation. He almost appears to be a Three – trying to please; in fact, his stepping down from his role as the most senior advisor to the Prime Minister seems more likely a move to look good – “look, I took one for the chief!” Whether he continues to give advice is almost irrelevant – he didn’t rise to even a Stage Four (law & order) approach throughout any of the conversations or reasons he offered, at least that I heard.
The Prime Minister – well there is no surprise, except that maybe he moved from a Stage Three to a surly Stage Two – “get the deal done”. In all his pronouncements and his fudging answers in Question Point all he ever did was ask people to “scratch his back, and then he might scratch theirs”. He never once apologized; he never once admitted that someone might have made a mistake. In the end, his inability to ever move above his long-standing middling Stage Three wherein he strives to be liked, to be extensively “selfied”, means that he can’t address the law & order conundrum, and certainly won’t attempt the Golden Rule. And wherever he uses the word “principle” he is simply employing a barter – “if you will accept my principles, I’ll then accept yours” (and then, can’t we move on?). He is certainly no reincarnation of his father; however, his soft upbringing may have inadvertently prevented him from ever developing beyond the “me first” level of moral reasoning.
I’m not going to attempt to incorporate the Leader of the Opposition nor the leader of the NDP party into this as the primary issue really doesn’t encompass them. But I am going to comment briefly on the two women that ended up be the centre of this affair (again, there is the third women in the Liberal caucus who outright quit the party, and Lisa Raitt of the Conservatives, but they can be addressed in a later chapter). Jody Wilson Raybould is a classic 3/4 hybrid – she can be very focussed on law & order reasoning (Stage 4) when it is central to the conversation. However she too often is a Stage Three. When she secretly recorded the conversation with the Principal Clerk, if she wasn’t breaking the law, she certainly was bending it for her own purposes – apparently to help bolster her image and thus her credibility. Whether it did is for others to determine; however, from my vantage point she was as political as the PM, always crafting her position for her own self-gratification. There is something rather unethical for an individual claiming to pursue the truth to be secretly recording a private conversation. I don’t have any deep question about her need to record if her staff were not available to help take notes, but then she simply must inform the other individual of the fact that she is recording. I wonder how she would have felt if some of her calls were being secretly recorded on other issues. In the end, her treatment at the hands of the Prime Minister is somehow not so surprising. His 3/2 vs. her 3/4 collided at the Stage Three level – he wanted to be liked by his caucus while she wanted to be liked by the public (probably even more than by her own family and friends). He had more power – he won.
Jane Philpott is a completely different character in all this. From everything I have heard and can gather from research, she is a solid Stage Five individual. She reasons from the Golden Rule perspective, always putting herself in the other’s shoes before making her decision. She tried that with Jody, with Justin and basically with the entire caucus. She never actually did any harm to anyone. She stood up for her friend, perhaps unnecessarily but nevertheless on principle. She stood up to the Prime Minister, again though for his own good, and contrary to some in the caucus, she actually demonstrated a strong commitment to making sure her party remained true to its principles and its standing in the larger community, She occasionaly employed Stage Four reasoning at times in an effort to convince all the key actors to adopt a better course of action. They would have none of it in large part because they were reasoning at best at the Stage Three level and at times reverted to Stage Two – they just wanted a deal done so the scandal would go away. In the end she was removed from the caucus and the party not for her quality of work, not even for her quality of argument re the position she took, but simply because the PM couldn’t understand where she was coming from. She wasn’t helping his image, she wouldn’t make a deal so obviously she needed to be punished (Stage One) and so she was.
I’m not sure how this all will play out in the next federal election but I do think it had an impact on PEI voters. That province is very politically engaged and such involvement is almost an aspect of the DNA of the citizenry. There is an expectation that politics will follow proper form(a normative way of doing things) and that principles will be adhered to. The Premier, whom I know personally, is a very principled individual. He was not voted out because of scandal or impropriety. His party simply seemed old and then along comes a scandal of the parent party and the inability of the PM to simply apologize and promise to root out the scandal so that it never recurs I think resonated with a great many Islanders and thus they deemed that anyone was better than a Liberal – anyone that is, except the NDP. So it is that there will be a minority government that will likely act in a coalition manner, with the Green’s and PC’s both led by more idealistic types – elected because their premier had been let down by a formerly idealistic PM who ended up showing that he was no Golden Rule leader but rather the same old, same old Stage 3/2 politico. The new leaders best take note – if they are going to attempt to be Stage 4/5 leaders in their ethical reasoning, they better maintain a close proximity in their actions.
An interesting sidebar: except for BC and a couple of Atlantic provinces, the provincial leaderships are now conservative. If these leaders don’t fall victim to pandering to their extremist fringe, but instead really focus on the long game, the PM and his party may rue the day they didn’t apologize for the mistakes re SNC-Lavelin, promise to correct them, and maintain an air of at least ethically reasoning at a Stage 4. The public seems to be showing a willingness to expect that level to be the new norm.