In Depth

SNC-Lavalin: the scandal which could sink Justin Trudeau

Canadian PM suffers polling blow as corruption allegations threaten re-election bid

he popularity of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's has been badly hit by a long-running scandal that may scupper his hopes of securing a second term, according to a newly published opinion poll.

The Liberal Party leader swept into power on a progressive wave in 2015, and is preparing to stand again in elections in October. But Trudeau is facing increasing criticism as questions mount about his role in efforts to prevent corruption charges being brought against Canadian construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group.

Two cabinet ministers have already quit over the scandal. Jane Philpott, president of the Treasury Board, stepped down in March, weeks after former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould announced she was resigning.

Wilson-Raybould claimed she had been pressured by Trudeau and key aides in his Liberal government “to snuff out corruption charges” against the Montreal-based company, reports Bloomberg.

Now, voters are also showing their growing anger with the prime minister and his party.

“The polls are just abysmal for them right now,” Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at Ontario's University of Windsor, told Canadian radio station CBC Toronto.

“If he wants to be serious about maintaining government coming in October, he has got to turn his fortunes around,” Miljan said, adding that a loss of electoral support in the Greater Toronto Area - Canada’s largest city - could mean a Liberal minority government or a Conservative win.

Reuters reports that the ruling Liberals have “lost six percentage points since the start of the year, ceding the lead to the rival Conservatives”.

If an election were held now, the “Conservatives would win 34.9% of the vote, the Liberals 32.8% and the left-leaning New Democratic Party 16.6%”, according to the news site.

Pollster Nik Nanos said that “the Liberals have taken a hit” but added that “they’re still competitive”, reports news site The Daily Wire.

“The most significant effect has been the negative impact on the prime minister’s personal brand,” Nanos added.

What exactly is being alleged?

SNC-Lavalin, one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies, is facing fraud and corruption charges in relation to approximately C$48m (£27m) “in bribes it is alleged to have offered to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011”, reports the BBC.

In February, Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper revealed that aides close to the PM had lobbied then-minister of justice and attorney general Wilson-Raybould to pursue a “deferred prosecution agreement” against SNC-Lavalin that would allow the company to escape with a fine.

This allegation “forced the resignation of Trudeau’s principal private secretary, Gerald Butts”, although he denied all wrongdoing, reports Reuters.

In testimony to Canada’s House of Commons, Wilson-Raybould described a “consistent, sustained and inappropriate effort” by senior officials close to Trudeau to dissuade her from prosecuting the firm. She alleged that government officials close to the PM feared the company might cut jobs or move its headquarters out of Quebec if found guilty.

However, under questioning from legislators from the ruling Liberal Party, the former minister said did not feel the pressure exercised on her had crossed the line into illegality.

What has Trudeau’s reaction been?

Following Wilson-Raybould’s appearance, Trudeau “reiterated his claims neither he nor any of his staff did anything inappropriate in their dealings with the former attorney general”, reports Canadian broadcaster CBC. The PM added that he completely disagrees with her description of events.

In the wake of Philpott’s resignation, Trudeau said that his government had respected judicial independence while pushing to defend jobs, and that he contemplated helping the firm avoid a trial on economic grounds. He added that Philpott’s departure had been on the cards for a while.

“I know Philpott has felt this way for some time. And while I am disappointed, I understand her decision to step down and I want to thank her for her service,” he told a rally in Toronto. “We’re allowed to have disagreements and debate. We even encourage it.”

Could SNC-Lavalin bring down Trudeau?

Trudeau still holds the support of the majority of his cabinet, with lawmaker Steven MacKinnon telling CBC that the Liberals “absolutely have a disagreement” on the issue of stepping in to help SNC-Lavalin with a deferred prosecution agreement.

“Our belief is that this company is one that is, like its competitors around the world, entitled to a deferred prosecution arrangement like they would be able to have access to” in other countries with similar systems, MacKinnon said. “The vast majority of my colleagues believe the government has acted entirely appropriately.”

But with Trudeau’s Liberals currently trailing the Conservative Party in the polls, the case could have a drastic effect on the country’s federal election in October. Indeed, one in four Canadians say the case will influence their vote, reports Toronto-based CTV News

Shachi Kurl, of Canadian pollsters the Angus Reid Institute, told Bloomberg that Philpott’s resignation was “a deluge, a massive splash, and one sure to keep this problem for the prime minister’s credibility and brand front and centre for Canadians at a time when Liberals are wishing it all away, in increasing vain”.


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