Justin Trudeau and his Sodom and Gomorrah Moment

The Trudeau government is facing a painful moment of truth as its Mr. Clean image is being challenged and tarnished. SNC Lavalin (SNCL) is a case study in the politics of corruption. Trudeau and his colleagues are having difficulty trying to pretend to be legally correct yet justify something that is clearly outside the bounds of any basic understanding of ethics.

The Bible can be understood as history or as a series of lessons or parables that speak to the dilemma of being human. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18/19 sounds remarkably current when lined up next to the SNCL narrative. The text makes clear that Sodom and Gomorrah represent evil, ethical lapses or sin – by whatever name – but outside the bounds of what “God” considers acceptable.  Abraham recognizes that his nephew Lot and family are resident in Sodom and if God destroys the cities they will suffer the same fate.  Abraham – the presumed father of all three monotheistic religions – decides to arrange a rescue based on the argument that “Good or righteous people will be destroyed along with the evil” – so the negotiations begin.

Abraham asks if they can find 50 righteous people in the City – would God then relent and not destroy the City – so that the “good or righteous” should not suffer because of the actions of the evil. God relents but Abraham demonstrates limited confidence in the goodness of these cities and continues – how about 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally they agree on 10.  The story line is clear – nobody argues that the majority of the population is not “evil” but rather that there is a possible offset in terms of the balance of innocent suffering because of the guilty.

The implication is that the consequences of evil or ethical lapses are negotiable – it is simply about the number or proportion.

The Trudeau story line in the SNCL affair has been that “9,000 jobs in Canada are at stake”.  The criticism of Trudeau and his staff as reported does not seem to be about the severity of the ethical lapse but rather that “Trudeau and his office applied inappropriate pressure” on the Minister of Justice.

Lets take a closer look….

  1. Is the SNCL just about one case of unfortunate corruption by someone not authorized to do that – or is it more?  For context – the World Bank has a list of 600 companies or entities that have been convicted of corruption in dealings related to World bank contracts and are excluded from bidding for 10 years – and quite amazingly 115 out of the 600 names relate to a single company – SNC Lavalin.  Less-than-transparent Indonesia (#89 on the Transparency list) can only achieve 43 entries.
  2. The known list of countries where SNCL has been seriously accused or convicted of corruption is rather long and covers many decades. The events in Libya which are the basis of the present case in Canada were far from an isolated incident.
  3. SNCL did not discover ethical lapses among its management or employees and self-report. These events only came to light with the help of the Panama papers and the work of the Swiss Government. In other words – if this external reporting had not occurred it seems clear that SNC Lavalin had no intention about reporting its lapses.
  4. SNCL has also been accused of the payment of large bribes in its home city of Montreal related to a $1.3 billion Hospital development.  This was recent and involved the CEO.
  5. It would be safe to assume that in a situation where there has been no self-reporting that whatever has been discovered will only be a fraction of the totality of events involving bribery or corruption. It would be unrealistic to assume otherwise.

Given that established history – how does one negotiate about the price of corruption?  Should one assume that the company is now ”clean” when there have been decades of alternative history?  What should we assume about future behavior if there is a “get out of jail” option available?

The second question is to establish the price of the offset for criminal activity.  Prime Minister Trudeau and his staff keep making the claim that “9,000 jobs are at stake”.  I have heard very little analysis about that claim.  It is notable that SNCL has expanded through purchases of companies in other countries and its Canadian employment has not benefited from its growth in global volume. There is no presumption that a criminal conviction will affect its other international business – it is already under a 10-year ban from the Work Bank so its international reputation is clearly established.

SNCL reports that only 1/3 of its current annual volume of $9 billion is work in Canada. These are long term projects and require ongoing support.  If SNCL could not bid on future Canadian federal contracts that would presumably result in a decrease of some Canadian work over time (not all of these contracts are federal) – and if I understand mathematics that would affect a fraction of its Canadian employees over a number of years.

More important and relevant – if an engineering project such as a bridge is built in Canada it will most likely be built by a Canadian company.  If SNCL does not get the contract presumably another Canadian company will do the work and employ a similar number of Canadians at similar salaries. Can someone explain to me where the job losses would occur?

It is also notable that engineers of the type employed by SNCL are in short supply in Canada with most companies seeking employees.  Diverting employees to more ethical companies might be a contribution to a better world!

What is the impact of corruption on the Canadian economy and society?  If a contract is awarded because someone was paid a bribe of $30 million – we can only assume that amount was built into the contract and possibly more since the contract was not awarded on a competitive basis. This not only raises the cost of the project but it erodes the integrity of our society and the companies and political entities who are involved.

I am trying to understand why the competitors to SNCL have not made more public noise about the actions of SNCL. If they were truly being denied access to contracts because of unethical behavior by one competitor, then they have suffered a serious loss of business.

The other answer is that in some jurisdictions many companies may have been involved in bid-rigging or similar schemes – such as the infrastructure contracts in Montreal – so are reluctant to report one of their colleagues if they were themselves acting in a parallel manner.

There is another biblical metaphor that might apply.

“He who is without sin cast the first stone…”

Back to the Sodom and Gomorrah question.

Should ethics or criminal activity – call it what it is – be negotiable in a society like Canada that protests loudly and internationally that it operates strictly according to the rule of law?  If it is negotiable – then who determines the price to be paid and the circumstances when such an alternative applies?

What about the family where the father had an ethical lapse of whatever kind, goes to jail with serious consequences for the care of his family and the impact on children of an absent father? Should that be taken into account?

The bigger question – can Canada afford to have a flexible system of criminal justice based on factors external to the crime?  If there is any flexibility – should that be a product of political intrigue or a judicial process that is transparent?  If it is a political process that suggests it is not equally available to all companies and citizens.

Returning to SNCL.  When a company has demonstrated impropriety of a serious nature over decades and multiple leaders and board members – why should we suddenly believe that the company will suddenly act different?  If SNCL does not pay a big price for its sins – then when should any company pay for its lapses – I can hardly think of a situation where the trespass is longer, more serious, more endemic and more consequential.

Lets return to Prime Minister Trudeau and the Government of Canada.

Do they simply not understand how serious the ethical lapse of SNCL has been over time?  If local politics will always win the day then Canada should adjust its criminal code and make everything an administrative matter – and not pretend to be holding the high moral ground.  However, Canadians do expect our Government to hold the high ground – as we claim in the Huawei case.

It is noteworthy that Justin Trudeau more than any other recent leader has claimed to be operating by a different or higher political/moral standard – so his performance in this case is that much more of a surprise, a disappointment and a blow to his reputation, his Government and to the faith of Canadians in politics.

For anyone interested in further examination of the parallel between the Sodom and Gomorrah story and SNCL I suggest you read the original text in Genesis chapters 18 and 19. The narrative involves violent sex, incest, disrespect of god, the sacrifice of women to protect men, disloyalty, lack of hospitality and more. The narrative where the wife of Lot is transformed to a pillar of salt as a reminder to others about the punishment for disobedience is interesting. Consider that some high-profile Canadian nabobs who were exposed in this affair may become unemployable in visible public roles as a reminder to the rest of us. The two angels who seemed to make the final decision about Sodom were threatened with sexual attack – or read sexist. Their experience sounds a great deal like that of a couple of Ministers we know.