Liberal MPs will hold a special two-day caucus meeting on Parliament Hill this week to plot parliamentary strategy for the remainder of the current sitting, but some backbenchers say they would like to see cabinet justify its policy positions better and improve its consultations with MPs.
The meeting is a replacement for the usual winter caucus retreat and will start on the afternoon of Friday, March 24, and last all day Saturday, March 25.
Usually, all political parties meet prior to the start of the post-Christmas parliamentary sitting, but this time Liberals are meeting in the middle after “timing” issues made it tricky to meet before, according to Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.), chair of the national caucus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) shuffled his cabinet on Jan. 10 and shook up the parliamentary secretary roster.
In part, it’s also making up for the lack of a Wednesday caucus meeting this week because of the budget lockups scheduled on March 22, one of which is happening in the Reading Room 237-C, where the Liberals usually meet.
It will be the first time the whole caucus has been together since some 100 backbench Liberals flexed their free-vote muscles in defying the government’s will on private member’s bill S-201 on genetic discrimination.
The bill, originally sponsored by now-retired Senator Jim Cowan, seeks to introduce the first-ever nationwide penalties against genetic discrimination passed third reading in the House on March 8 without the government’s desired amendments—criticized as essentially gutting the bill—by a vote of 222 to 60.
Mr. Trudeau said that day, just after the Liberals’ last caucus meeting, that the bill was unconstitutional, an argument that ultimately held little weight with the dissenting Liberal backbenchers.
At numerous stages of study and debate before the Commons, the government, through Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and various parliamentary secretaries, tried to claw back two of the three main pillars of the bill, arguing that the bill impedes on the provinces’ and territories’ ability to decide for themselves what regime works best for addressing genetic discrimination, and expressed worry that court challenge could come from the insurance industry if the bill passed.
However, Liberal supporters of the bill pointed to top constitutional experts’ testimony defending the bill and said they had yet to hear a compelling argument, including any justification from their government, against it.
The government has since announced it is looking to refer the bill to the Supreme Court to get advice on whether the bill is constitutional, once it officially passes.
One Liberal MP, who spoke to The Hill Times on condition of anonymity, said that he’s not satisfied with the level of consultation on decisions from the government. He said there is some consultation within the caucus, but the discussions should be more detailed.
“There’s never enough consultation,” the Liberal MP said. “There’s always need for more and more and more.”
This MP said that consultation means different things to different people and, in some cases, if the government does not follow the advice of an MP, that MP thinks he or she was not consulted, which the MP said he doesn’t agree with.
A second Liberal MP told The Hill Times that there’s consultation in the caucus, but his concern is that it should be more detailed and more open. This MP said cabinet ministers and their parliamentary secretaries should do more one-on-one consultations, especially with MPs who disagree with a government policy or legislation.
In most consultations, this MP said, ministers show up for a limited amount of time because of their busy schedules and MPs have to be brief in their comments. These consultations lack a detailed back and forth between Members and ministers, the MP said.
One Liberal lobbyist, who asked not to be named, told The Hill Times that the dynamics are sure to be interesting inside the caucus room after the Bill S-201 vote.
“It’s an interesting dynamic in the House when the backbench votes against the front bench and you can walk back the cat and figure out why,” this source said. “And it’s never a good thing, even though people will try and spin it as, ‘This is democracy in action.’ ”
Which is exactly how Mr. Scarpaleggia classified it, saying he doesn’t think any message was sent by the Liberal backbenches’ dissent on Bill S-201, and that he thought they were adequately in the loop.
“I think people felt compelled because of the particular content of the bill. … They were involved in the decision-making process last week in votes on those bills, very much so,” he said. “It was just a difference of opinion … and in some ways democracy at it’s best where people are carefully considering a bill, or a motion’s content, and not really the politics around it,” said Mr. Scarpaleggia.
Some Liberal MPs in not-for-attribution based interviews told The Hill Times that in the early months of the Trudeau government, one issue that backbench MPs faced was that they were not getting information from cabinet ministers quick enough about government program announcements for geographical areas where their ridings were located. But this is thought to have happened mainly because most ministers and their staffers were new and did not know that area MPs should be kept abreast of new government announcements.
This issue was also raised in the regular weekly caucus meetings and the prime minister advised cabinet ministers several times to inform MPs ahead of time. Now, these MPs says they are getting information on time.
“The centre needs to be cognizant of the fact that the caucus is feeling perhaps not as much a part of the team as they could be, and they show it in strange ways, and I would expect more of this rogue behaviour if they don’t get a little aggressive in trying to address it,” said the Liberal lobbyist.
The Liberal caucus has about a dozen issues-based caucuses: the seniors caucus chaired by Deborah Schulte (King-Vaughan, Ont.); the indigenous affairs caucus chaired by Don Rusnak (Thunder Bay-Rainy River, Ont.); the auto caucus chaired by John Oliver (Oakville, Ont.); the energy and environment caucus co-chaired by Jonathan Wilkinson (North Vancouver, B.C.) and Kim Rudd (Northumberland-Peterborough South, Ont.); the aerospace and space caucus chaired by Leona Alleslev (Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, Ont.); the digital caucus co-chaired by David Graham (Laurentides-Labelle, Que.) and David Lametti (LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, Que.); the food policy caucus chaired by Julie Dabrusin (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.); and there are four regional caucuses on immigration.
The issues-based caucuses meet on the Hill when Parliament is in session. Depending on the timing of the meeting, cabinet ministers sometimes attend these meetings to hear the concerns of MPs and to listen to any input about their departments. Ministers sometimes also send their staffers to attend these meetings and take notes on top-of mind-issues.
“We have very free-flowing caucus meetings, and everyone who wants to have a say, has a say. … I don’t see a problem,” said Mr. Scarpaleggia.
In interviews last week, Liberal MPs said they expect this two-day meeting to be a standard one in which MPs discuss parliamentary strategy, and receive briefings from cabinet ministers and the party staff.
Mr. Scarpaleggia said Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) will further brief caucus on the budget, they will hear from the Liberal Party on “party-related matters,” and there will be an opportunity to hear from the Prime Minister’s Office in relation to “current issues.”
“The weekend caucus will provide the usual opportunities for exchanges among caucus members,” Mr. Scarpaleggia said, both on regional and national issues.
“We talk about the session, just basically, where we are, where we’re going, that sort of thing,” said Liberal MP Ken Hardie (Fleetwood-Port Kells, B.C.). “It’s pretty general stuff and every party would more or less cover that ground in their caucus meetings.”
Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga Centre, Ont.) also echoed Mr. Hardie’s views. He said the party didn’t get a chance to hold a caucus retreat before the MPs returned in the new year, and this meeting is a substitute for that. Mr. Alghabra said that he had not seen the agenda, but added that like any other retreat, there’ll be a session where MPs can ask questions from cabinet ministers.
Bluesky Strategy Group senior associate and former Liberal MP Joe Jordan told The Hill Times: “These events are best when individual members can speak freely. I always loved it, because in the course of an hour, you’ve got a snapshot of what the country was thinking. That’s the currency that MPs spend. That’s the fuel that runs the machine.”
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