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Gentili: It's high time we blindfold the attorney general

Technically, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did nothing wrong in attempting to influence his attorney general — and that’s a problem
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In attempting to influence how his attorney general handled the SNC-Lavalin bribery case, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did absolutely nothing wrong — and that’s the problem.

Justice is supposed to be blind. That’s a standard that's more than 500 years old. Since the 16th century, statues of Lady Justice (you know, the woman in robes holding a sword and scale) has been depicted wearing a blindfold. Why? Because justice is supposed to be administered without the influence of wealth, power or social status.

That notion, that justice should be blind, is the foundation of our modern judicial system, a system that is supposed to treat everyone equally. Our trust in the system itself flows directly from the very important tenet that, under the law, we are all the same.

Whether a prince or a pauper, when you stand before a Canadian judge, your bank account and social standing aren’t supposed to matter.

Unless, of course, your alleged malfeasance is something that draws the attention of the federal government. Unless, of course, prosecuting you for your alleged malfeasance could have wider implications for society and the economy.

Then … well … then, things are different.

As you are probably aware, under Canada’s federal parliamentary system, the attorney general and the minister of Justice are the same person. This is important because that means that the person who is supposed to be the country’s top prosecutor, the person who is supposed to be the chief legal adviser to the federal government, is not unfettered — that person is a political appointee.

And that means that the attorney general is not blind, as justice should be, but serves at the pleasure of the prime minister. That means that it is neither illegal nor improper for cabinet ministers or senior staff to attempt to influence the decisions of the country’s top justice official.

Neither Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nor Michael Wernick, the former Clerk of the Privy Council, did anything wrong by attempting to influence former Justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould’s decision regarding the SNC-Lavalin bribery case. Technically.

Since the attorney general and the justice minister are the same person, the position of attorney general is a political one as much as it is a judicial one. As inappropriate (or repugnant) as some may find this, it is an absolute fact that the prime minister is within his or her rights to try to influence the attorney general.

That said, the idea that Canada’s top prosecutor can be influenced by the needs, wants or whims of a ruling political party is wrong. Canada’s top justice official should not be a political appointee, should not be in cabinet and should not be a politician. That should go without saying.

The position should be filled through the deliberations of an all-party committee for fixed terms, and the person who fills that position should be unfettered and free to pursue prosecutions as he or she sees fit.

I’m neither a friend nor an enemy of Justin Trudeau, but his fall from grace has been quick and entirely predictable. He and his public relations crew set him up as this highly ethical, idealistic, cosmopolitan politician, who was witty and handsome and modern.

The packaging he placed himself in was that of the 21st century politician who ate healthy, dressed well, stood up for women’s and minority rights, and would not conduct himself or his government in the grand Old Boys' Club tradition. He was something new and different.

It was a great message. It was also virtually impossible to live up to. No one is perfect. We expect our politicians to have failings, that’s why they rank so poorly on lists of the most trusted professions. When they fail, we hardly bat an eye. A self-serving politician? Perish the thought.

But when you set yourself up as a paragon of virtue, when you portray yourself as being above the fray, your fall will be a hard one.

Jody Raybould-Wilson’s problem (and Jane Philpott’s problem, for that matter) is that she believed Trudeau’s rhetoric. It must have been particularly disheartening when they came to the realization that it was just that ... rhetoric.

SNC-Lavalin exposed Trudeau for what he really is: a politician like any other, willing to play politics to protect his party and his position. 

But the scandal also exposed something far more important: a flaw in our federal justice system. Let’s put a blindfold on the attorney general.

Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com.




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