Jane Philpott was deeply ambivalent about talking earlier this week when she welcomed a Maclean’s reporter to her MP’s office in the Confederation Building across the street from Parliament Hill. It’s not an office the former Treasury Board president knows well: she had fancier and more centrally located ministerial offices in a succession of senior roles in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet since 2015, before she resigned from cabinet on March 4. Now she is only the Liberal MP for the Ontario riding of Markham—Stouffville.
This is Philpott’s first interview since she resigned over Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy. She believes, as she put it, that “there’s much more to the story that needs to be told” but that it can’t come out because “there’s been an attempt to shut down the story”—an attempt she attributed to the Prime Minister and his close advisors.
But she is also keenly aware, because she has been hearing from Liberal colleagues, that “there are people who are afraid that they’re not going to get elected because of what I did.” As she described that anger, the former minister said: “My only way of living with myself on that, is that this is not my fault. I did not start this.” Now she is trying to figure out how to see it through.
This transcript of our conversation has been edited only lightly for clarity.
Q: When you left cabinet, did you have a strategic goal in mind? What was the point of resigning?
A: I resigned because I could not maintain solidarity with cabinet on the specific issue of the management of the SNC-Lavalin issue. I felt that there was evidence of an attempt to politically interfere with the justice system in its work on the criminal trial that has been described by some as the most important and serious prosecution of corporate corruption in modern Canadian history.
Q: Have all of the things that concerned you about the handling of that file come to light at the committee?
A: No. There’s much more to the story that should be told.
Q: What sort of stuff?
A: I believe the former attorney general has further points to make. I believe that I have further issues of concern that I’m not free to share. There was a reference by Gerry Butts in his testimony of the fact that I spoke to the Prime Minister on January the 6th about SNC-Lavalin’s desire to have a DPA [deferred prosecution agreement]. This was more than a month before the story became public. And I ordinarily would have not been allowed to share that information. But of course it’s already on the public record from the Justice Committee. I think Canadians might want to know why I would have raised that with the Prime Minister a month before the public knew about it. Why would I have felt that there was a reason why former Minister Wilson-Raybould should not be shuffled?
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Q: In what forum would you like to discuss all of this?
A: My sense is that Canadians would like to know the whole story. I believe we actually owe it to Canadians as politicians to ensure that they have the truth. They need to have confidence in the very basic constitutional principle of the independence of the justice system.
Q: All of this has been raised in the context of something called the Shawcross doctrine. Part of the Shawcross doctrine holds that if an attorney general feels that she is the subject of inappropriate pressure, she should resign immediately. Is that your understanding of the doctrine, and what do you say to people, including Gerry Butts and others, who asked why she didn’t raise it at the time?
A: I would not consider myself an expert on the Shawcross doctrine. But I have heard people raise that concern. Here’s what I would have to say about that — and of course the former attorney general is the person who can best speak for why she didn’t resign at the time. I see it as her having her finger in the dike. She essentially singlehandedly was upholding the independence of the justice system on this criminal trial — supported of course by the fact that the Director of Public Prosecution was the first one who said they don’t qualify for a DPA, based on law that was put in place in our last budget bill. So that was where the decision was made. The former AG didn’t want to override that, and she had her finger in the dike and said no repeatedly. She may have felt that, if she were to resign, that that would put the independence of the justice system at risk.
There’s one answer to that. Another answer to that is, from the perspective of somebody who is under pressure and perhaps being harassed, it’s incredibly hard – if you talk to people who are harassed in any capacity, to maintain relationships and to find the right time to be able to speak up about the fact that you are being treated that way. So you know, I think if you look at examples of other types of bullying or harassment, it’s not necessarily as easy as people might think to speak to those who are inflicting it upon you.
Q: Mr. Butts said, essentially, ‘Come on, this doesn’t rise to the level of harassment, or bugging, or even sustained engagement. It’s 20 interactions over four months. It’s two phone calls and two meetings per month.’
A: The constitutional principle of the independence of the justice system is such that the attorney general of our country should not be subjected to political interference in any way. Whether there is one attempt to interfere or whether there are 20 attempts to interfere, that crosses ethical and constitutional lines.
Q: In recent days, including on Monday, the Prime Minister and the government have announced a series of steps: getting advice from Anne McLellan; a change at the clerk level; and the Liberal majority on the committee has written that they have heard enough. How would you assess that series of steps as a response?
A: When I decided to become a politician, I made a commitment to represent the people of my riding. People of my riding want to hear more. They do not feel that they have heard the whole story. And I believe my primary obligation in representing them is to ensure that they have confidence that nothing untoward took place. And they have understandably been concerned about why there’s been an attempt to shut down the story.
Q: Now there’s an Ethics Commissioner investigation. Michael Wernick seemed to have a lot of confidence in the Ethics Commissioner. Do you think that can capture everything that needs capturing?
A: My sense is that they will not have the appropriate tools to be able to get at all of this.
Q: What’s missing?
A: If nothing wrong took place, then why don’t we waive privilege on the whole issue and let those who have something to say on it speak their minds and share their stories?
Q: I’ve heard it argued that yours and Jody Wilson-Raybould’s parliamentary privilege trumps other privilege, and that you could simply get up in a series of SO-31s [short statements before Question Period] and air this out. Or speak to any bill or motion that is even peripherally connected. That you could stand in the House of Commons and you’re protected.
A: I would prefer to err on the side of caution in terms of the very serious oaths that I made when I became a cabinet minister to respect confidentiality. And every supposed legal expert in the country weighing in, saying I can assume that that privilege has been waived does not necessarily give me confidence clearly enough that I am prepared to speak.
In terms of speaking in the House and using parliamentary privilege as a cover, it is technically possible. It’s easier said than done. Even SO-31s are sometimes sought-after spots, and I don’t think this is something that, you know, you’re going to be able to explain in a few minutes. We got four hours of testimony from the former AG, and I think there’s still a substantial amount of her story that’s not out there. I doubt that I would get four hours of time, or she would, or others would, to be able to explain the story in the House of Commons.
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Q: While all this is going on, can you be an effective MP?
A: I believe that I can. It’s up to my constituents to judge whether I’m being effective or not. I will continue to listen to my constituents. I have been meeting with as many of them as possible over the last couple of weeks. My staff is doing a great job making sure I understand what they’re saying. So I’m trying to represent them as best I can and stay in regular communication with them.
Q: Do you have leadership ambitions?
Q: The reason I ask is because the Liberal Party has historically been fairly kind to people who established a clear divergence from the leader and then later sought to rally fellow Liberals around them in a leadership bid. That’s not the plan?
A: There’s nothing in the decisions that I’ve made in the last few weeks that is any kind of power play. I ran to be a good Member of Parliament. I did not ever run to be in cabinet. I was obviously thrilled to have the privilege of being in cabinet. I saw it as an amazing opportunity to be able to do good things for the country and try to support people that might otherwise not have someone at the cabinet table advocating on their behalf. I am happy to be a good Member of Parliament. I don’t think my time in federal politics is done. I know there are people that are putting out rumours that the reason I quit is because I want to run for the [Ontario Liberal Party’s] provincial leadership. That is not true.
Q: The Finance Minister [Bill Morneau] said your resignation from cabinet was an expression of personal friendship with Jody Wilson-Raybould. What do you make of that?
A: I think that’s an insult.
Q: How so?
A: I don’t make decisions on any policy — and definitely not on a matter of principle — based on friendship. I made the very difficult decision to step down because my conscience demanded it.
Q: What kind of reception are you getting within the Liberal caucus these days?
A: Mixed. I like to think that I have pretty good relationships, and I have extraordinary respect for my colleagues and worked hard to build relationships, to listen well, to be a fair colleague, even if we disagreed on issues. This has hurt people, and I feel really sad about that. That was the hardest thing about doing this. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve made a decision that would directly impact people that I really care about. And I’m really sorry that I had to do it, because there are people who are afraid that they’re not going to get elected because of what I did.
My only way of living with myself on that is that this is not my fault. I did not start this. And a very wise person said two things to me that helped me over that. This is someone who has been around politics for a long time. They said that politicians in general, and perhaps Liberals in particular, make mistakes when they assume that the best interests of Canadians and their own future political success are synonymous.
Of course I want a Liberal government in federal politics. I do not want to see Prime Minister Andrew Scheer, for a whole bunch of really important reasons. But the Liberal Party needs to be the best version of the Liberal Party. And I had to do the right thing and trust that the details would work out for the best interests of Canadians. And I think that was the second thing that this person said to me: that you have to make the decision that you can live with, based on your own convictions and principles, and you are not responsible for the fallout from it.
Of course, as long as I’m allowed to continue to serve as a Liberal Member of Parliament, I will fight for all of the important things that I think our government is doing. Our action on climate change. Our incredibly important work to address justice for Indigenous peoples. Our really important work to make sure that we have a fair and inclusive society. So I will keep advocating for that. But I had to make the decision on this, and we will hope that Canadians will see that our overall policies are still the best ones for the country.
The only other thing I would say is – and one of my hesitations in talking to you — was that I do, in a sense, have two parallel messages. One is that I’m not happy with how the SNC-Lavalin issue has been dealt with, and I’m not prepared to support how it’s being managed. But at the same time, I really strongly support the Liberal Party and believe that we have the best overall policy suite for the good of Canadians. So I was really hesitant to talk to you because it will be perceived by my colleagues as some kind of attack. I have not yet figured out how I can reconcile the fact that it is wrong for me to stay silent on this, but somehow I have to hope that people, my colleagues in particular, can believe what is probably hard for them to believe: that I’m not trying to damage our party or our government.