A MOST CURIOUS DECISION
Aday or so after my arrival at Queen’s Park to cover the Ontario legislature for the National Post, a bearded, rangy, 30-something beanpole of a man unfolded himself on the ratty old office couch.That was my introduction to Gerald Butts. It was 2003, he was the principal secretary to the leader of the Opposition, Dalton McGuinty, and his office was kitty corner to mine.He spent most of his day spinning the reporters of the Queen’s Park press gallery like tops. The architect of McGuinty’s victorious platform, he made sure the leader of the Opposition’s office was moved to the point farthest away from the press gallery, after taking power.Butts still spins the small band of journalists on Parliament Hill he talks to regularly.He and I don’t often agree and I like to think I have developed a journalistic white blood cell count that makes me immune to his progressive bacillus.But he is very persuasive — one of the three smartest people I have dealt with in Canadian politics (the others being Stephen Harper and former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge).In 16 years, I have never had occasion to think he lied to me, so I am obliged to take at face value his statement that he has done nothing wrong, and that he quit as Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary on Monday because he doesn’t want to be a distraction for a government fighting to retain its credibility against the background of the SNCLavalin affair.Yet it is a curious decision. In the vacuum of information around the SNC case, there was nothing that made Butts’s position untenable. There probably didn’t need to be, given his extreme sensitivity to criticism.The suggestion that he has done anything untoward will have stung him. The idea that he would cling to his job would seem grubby.I asked him recently about rumours that he might run for the Liberals in his native Cape Breton. “Not now, not there, not anywhere, not ever,” he said. “I have been around enough successful politicians to know what it takes and I ain’t got it.”He’s right. The proud son of a Cape Breton coal miner, he’s too thin-skinned. And probably too honest.I CATEGORICALLY DENY THE ACCUSATION THAT I OR ANYONE ELSE IN (THE PMO) PRESSURED MS. WILSON-RAYBOULD … IT IS IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE OFFICE AND ITS IMPORTANT WORK FOR ME TO STEP AWAY. — GERALD BUTTSIn his resignation statement, he said he categorically denies the accusation that he or anyone else in the Prime Minister’s Office pressured former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to assist SNC-Lavalin in being considered for a deferred prosecution agreement.Is it possible Trudeau asked for his resignation? This is the man the prime minister called his “best friend and closest adviser” in his autobiography.One cabinet minister said he’s never seen a relationship like theirs. “Nobody talks to the prime minister, everybody has to go through Gerry. When Jean Chrétien calls for Justin, he gets a call back from Gerry. Even Justin thinks it was Gerry who got him elected,” he said.It is possible that Trudeau asked Butts to go because there is evidence he pushed too hard on the attorney general. It would certainly allow him to say he’d already cleaned house, were the evidence to emerge.It is feasible that Trudeau was feeling the heat from caucus over his cabal of powerful, unelected advisers and decided to throw a man overboard. There will have been many voices whispering in his ear that Butts had become a liability.All these things are possible — just hard to imagine.The prime minister talked about their “continued friendship,” as he thanked Butts for his advice and “devotion.”Trudeau can be as ruthless as a rattlesnake, if it fits his electoral calculus — just ask the Senate Liberal caucus. But unless Butts is completely compromised, firing him seems a bad career move. Trudeau has leaned on him for advice since they met at McGill University.On the available evidence, it seems likely that someone suggested to Wilson-Raybould that the government would like her to consider a plea agreement with SNC. Butts denies it was him or anyone else in the PMO.Yet it also seems highly likely that Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to be minister of veterans affairs last month because she had not taken a decision that would have played particularly well for the Liberals in Quebec — that is, taking the SNC case away from the director of public prosecutions and striking a remediation deal that would help protect the corporate integrity of a major employer in the province.Butts said his relationship with Wilson-Raybould has “always been defined by mutual respect, candour and an honest desire to work together.” But he also prides himself on the big picture — and to realize the goals he has set on climate change and elsewhere, the Liberals need to be re-elected. That would be greatly aided by an SNC deal in Quebec, which probably explains Wilson-Raybould’s demotion and her replacement with a Quebec MP, David Lametti.Taking a step back, Butts’s resignation is a milestone in the life of this government.He has become a figure almost as contentious as Trudeau himself.Butts Derangement Syndrome imagines a Svengali, a Cyrano de Bergerac, a Rasputin-type figure, who holds mesmeric sway over Trudeau and uses his influence for sinister purpose.In reality, the relationship is more inter-dependent than that — Butts has the deeper policy roots but Trudeau has his own convictions on gender, the environment and the role of the federal government. His role is to be the front man. “I’ll figure out a way to get it across to people,” Trudeau once told the Globe and Mail. But it is usually the policy arc that Butts has developed that the prime minister is selling.He has had remarkable leverage over Liberal policy since he helped organize a three-day retreat at Mont Tremblant, Que., in 2012 to discuss the prospect of Trudeau running for leader. Butts felt the party had lost touch with regular people, and even at that early stage was working on the narrative of “the middle class and those working hard to join it.”As his resignation note made clear, his other driving motivation was climate change policy, as befits a former head of the World Wildlife Fund Canada. “Our kids and grandkids will judge us on one issue above all others,” he said in his statement.Both he and Trudeau are intensely ideological, which reflects as a chauvinism bordering on smugness for their chosen causes, and a disregard comparable to disdain for those who disagree. That dismissal of all opposition as unworthy has created divisions in the country that have acted as a barrier to getting things done. One senior Liberal MP said the government has done good things but the constant push on “values” shifted the government’s focus from the aspirational voter to the identity voter.Butts, fairly or unfairly, has been a lightning rod for criticism inside the Liberal movement.The senior Liberal suggested there might have been a “riot” at caucus this Wednesday, had Butts not quit.As one person who has known him for 20 years put it, Butts “wears his passion on his sleeves” and that comes with consequences in terms of popularity. “It’s a vulnerable position — it’s hard to have that job and not upset people,” he said.Better than anyone, Butts likely realized there needed to be a scapegoat, even if his departure is unlikely to kill the SNC story.A number of Liberals will quietly cheer Butts’s departure, viewing him as an obstruction to them taking their rightful seat around the cabinet table.Yet his departure is likely to mean many more of them will be seeking alternative employment this fall than might otherwise have been the case.
Gerald Butts, who resigned Monday as principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was immediately thanked by Trudeau for his advice and “devotion” and “continued friendship.” Butts and Trudeau have been friends since their university days at McGill.
Gerald Butts and Justin Trudeau became fast friends as students at McGill University.
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