Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment on the wrong track with this one

Journal Pioneer - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@thetele­gram.com — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

Years ago, when I was first work­ing in jour­nal­ism, one of my ed­i­tors im­pressed on me the need for al­ways ask­ing the “what if?” ques­tions.

What if you’re mis­read­ing the pa­per trail? What if the in­ter­view sub­ject that an­chors your en­tire piece has an axe to grind and is ac­tu­ally ly­ing? What can come out of the blue and side­swipe the en­tire story? Is there ac­tu­ally a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tion than the one you’re work­ing with? (The ed­i­tor ac­tu­ally called the process “ask­ing the GO Train ques­tion,” be­cause while plan­ning the struc­ture of a ma­jor story and re-lis­ten­ing to an in­ter­view on head­phones, he was al­most hit by an On­tario com­muter train.)

It’s an im­por­tant test, be­cause no one is free of bias, and there’s plenty of bad in­ten­tions in the world. Shin­ing knights are few, and grey ar­eas abound. Per­haps, right now, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment should be ask­ing a few “what if?” ques­tions of its own about a quiet change it’s mak­ing in the fed­eral bud­get, one that would al­low com­pa­nies to avoid crim­i­nal con­vic­tions through a process known as “de­ferred pros­e­cu­tion agree­ments.”

Essen­tially, cor­po­rate crime could be dealt with by a com­pany agree­ing to pay a fine and ad­dress the crim­i­nal con­duct, so that con­vic­tions would never be regis­tered against the of­fender.

It’s bad enough that, in Cana­dian com­mer­cial law, com­pa­nies are treated as “per­sons,” right down to hav­ing rights that nor­mally would only ex­tend to liv­ing, breath­ing peo­ple. Hav­ing a sep­a­rate stan­dard in crim­i­nal law — the abil­ity to buy their way out of prison with fines and prom­ises of im­prove­ments — may make sense if your goal is to speed up the ju­di­cial process and to find novel ways to ad­dress in­ter­nal com­pany issues. But if you can’t see how eas­ily such a regime could be abused to help a gov­ern­ment’s cor­po­rate friends, then you are be­ing wil­fully blind.

If the rules were fol­lowed to a T, avoid­ing crim­i­nal charges would al­low a firm to con­tinue bid­ding on gov­ern­ment con­tracts, even if it had been caught in acts like in­sider trad­ing, mu­nic­i­pal cor­rup­tion or fraud.

Why? Be­cause the crim­i­nal charge against it would be stayed if the com­pany lived up to its side of the agree­ment: “The or­der stays the pro­ceed­ings against the or­ga­ni­za­tion for any of­fence to which the agree­ment ap­plies, the pro­ceed­ings are deemed never to have been com­menced and no other pro­ceed­ings may be ini­ti­ated against the or­ga­ni­za­tion for the same of­fence,” the proposed leg­is­la­tion says.

Spe­cial treat­ment in­deed. The change is tucked into the gov­ern­ment’s 582-page bud­get doc­u­ment, at Divi­sion 20, near the very end.

MPs are now ar­gu­ing that that the change is sig­nif­i­cant enough, and so di­vorced from the ac­tual bud­get, that it should be taken out of the bud­get and dealt with as sep­a­rate leg­is­la­tion — and even Lib­eral MPs are trou­bled by the clause. The Trudeau gov­ern­ment, so far, is re­fus­ing to take the clause out of the bud­get, essen­tially guar­an­tee­ing its pas­sage with­out full and care­ful de­bate. The MPs who are trou­bled by this are right to be.

Why should a corporation be al­lowed to buy a get-out-of-jail­free card? If crim­i­nal acts can be dealt with by sim­ply fes­s­ing up, cut­ting a cheque and promis­ing that you’ll do bet­ter, is there re­ally any mean­ing­ful de­ter­rence on the ta­ble? That’s just mak­ing the com­mis­sion of a crime into a busi­ness de­ci­sion, bal­anced on the scale of profit and loss, rather than right and wrong.

Re­fus­ing to take that sec­tion out of the cur­rent act so it can be re­viewed more closely?

Ei­ther ex­treme hubris, or real ig­no­rance that the GO Train could be right around the cor­ner.

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