A bribe by any other name would smell…

Jody Wilson Raybould delivers her opening statement as she appears at the justice committee meeting in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2019.

I’ve got some hard things to say, so let’s get a couple of things straight before I say them.

First, I am not writing out of partisanship. I have voted Red, Blue, and Orange in various elections, and I can imagine someday voting Green (or Blue-White-and-Red, if I have the PPC colours correct).

Second, I applaud the prime minister’s vaunted concern for reconciliation with aboriginal peoples and for elevating the status of women in Canada. I don’t care, and I cannot possibly know, how deep in his heart run these concerns. They matter to me, and I’m glad our prime minister has placed priority on them.

I do not, therefore, leap onto the bandwagon of those who cry, “Hypocrisy!” at Justin Trudeau because of the SNC-Lavalin affair and the bad treatment of his one-time Justice Minister and star cabinet member Jody Wilson-Raybould. Trudeau might be a hypocrite, but to judge him as such requires a confidence about his heart that I cannot presume.

I want to invoke a different category: Bribery.

I’m neither a lawyer nor a legislator. It seems to me, however, that if a government decides to include in its criminal code a provision for a person or a corporation to pay a fine rather than undergo a messy trial and then incarceration, that can be perfectly reasonable. When instead a corporation’s officers lobby a government to change the law so that they can pay a fine (to the government) rather than undergo a messy trial and then incarceration, that is something else.

A bribe.

If I’m stopped for a traffic violation in a small town, and the local cop who arrests me says I’m going to spend the night in jail, and I offer to pay the town a fee to avoid imprisonment, what would you call what I’m offering? A donation?

Sometimes bribery is the least bad option in a situation one cannot avoid. Greasing the palms of a corrupt state is what even Christians have to do sometimes in the interest of the greater good. Without bribes, that food will rot on the docks. Without bribes, those medical supplies won’t get past the roadblocks. As a Christian ethicist working to maximize shalom in the real world, I get that.

Such ethical borderline situations, however, are those which are imposed upon good people. Such people cannot escape and must choose among strictly limited ethical options. SNC-Lavalin is not in such a situation, nor is the Trudeau government.

Even sensible people will say, “Well, SNC-Lavalin has to engage in corruption if they’re going to do business there.” But how far does that thinking go? “SNC-Lavalin will have to hire prostitutes to entertain its clients/SNC-Lavalin will have to buy illegal drugs to feed the habits of government officials/SNC-Lavalin will have to assassinate political opponents of its customers”?

SNC-Lavalin is not compelled to do such things. Such a company chooses to do business where it knows it has to grease the palms—that is, perpetuate in power—corrupt regimes. Moreover, the choice of the Trudeau government is then whether to indirectly, but effectively, perpetuate in power those corrupt regimes by obliging—indeed, by taking money from—businesses that choose to operate under those regimes.

The crucial ethical difference here, then, is the difference between choosing the least evil option in a bad situation imposed upon you, on the one hand, and freely choosing to do evil so as to make more money, on the other.

As I say, I’m not a lawyer, nor a legislator. I’m not a businessman, either. But from a Christian point of view, if you really think you can’t make a go of your business without participating in bribery, then either God has called you to do the best you can in a situation from which you cannot possibly extricate yourself, or you need to choose a different business.

Merely sighing and saying it’s the way of the world will not do. We Canadians must expect more from our businesspeople and our politicians than that.

So maybe the prime minister sometimes does the right things out of mixed motives. Fine: right things still get done.

But wrong things out of wrong motives? What defense can there be for that?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).