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Upcoming gun bill ‘scaring the hell out of the Liberal caucus,’ and Trudeau’s response to Harvey’s concerns puts a chill on backbenchers, say Liberals

By Abbas Rana      

Liberal MPs question why PMO principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford regularly attend all national caucus meetings, and say they should be meetings of only elected MPs.

Liberal MPs want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep his cool when his caucus colleagues raise tough questions in closed-door caucus meetings. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s angry response to a rural MP’s concerns raised at a recent national caucus meeting on the Hill over the government’s upcoming gun legislation did not go over well with some Liberal MPs who say it will have a “chilling” effect on their ability to speak candidly at the closed-door meetings.

According to Liberal MPs and insiders, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) verbally “attacked” rookie Liberal MP T.J. Harvey (Tobique-Mactaquac, N.B.), chair of the Liberal rural caucus, during the Feb. 28 national caucus meeting on Parliament Hill. Mr. Harvey stood up to say that there was a “lack” of meaningful consultation with the caucus over the government’s upcoming gun control legislation.

“Justin was much too vitriolic and attacked him,” one Liberal MP, referring to Mr. Harvey, told The Hill Times, who spoke on condition of anonymity since the closed-door caucus meetings are confidential. “We’re also supposed to have the right to voice our opinion.”

This MP said the soon to be tabled gun legislation is “scaring the hell out of the Liberal caucus,” especially the ones representing rural ridings.

Citing confidentiality, in a telephone interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Harvey, chair of the 55-member Liberal rural caucus, declined to comment on his exchange with the prime minister at the meeting. But Liberal MPs who were present in the caucus told The Hill Times that Mr. Harvey told Mr. Trudeau that rural MPs feel that there has not been adequate consultation with them on the gun legislation expected to be tabled in the coming weeks.

According to sources, Mr. Trudeau, “went after” Mr. Harvey and “asserted” that there has already been a “robust, more than sufficient consultation,” and no more consultation was needed. Sources said that the whole caucus was taken aback by the prime minister’s unusually angry tone, which they said would have an “intimidating effect” on MPs’ willingness to raise issues in future caucus meetings.

“He has to be able to hear the criticisms as well,” said the MP. “It will put a bit of a chill. It’s important that people feel free to speak up.”

The weekly national caucus meetings held by each party are a forum for all caucus members to have an open and frank conversations about national issues, and the issues in their respective ridings, with their party leaders.

Liberal MP T.J. Harvey, centre, pictured with Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, right, and Liberal MP Will Amos, is the chairman of the Liberal rural caucus. The Hill Times file photograph

Some MPs also questioned, in interviews with The Hill Times last week, why Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Mr. Trudeau, and Katie Telford, chief of staff to the prime minister, regularly attend the national caucus meetings which are only for elected MPs. They pointed out that chiefs of staff and principal secretaries were not allowed to attend all the national caucus during the tenures of then Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. They said national caucus meetings are meant to give an opportunity to rank and file MPs to speak their minds without fear of retribution from senior PMO political aides who advise the prime minister on key cabinet decisions and all functions of the machinery of the government.

“There needs to be more time where only elected representatives are in the room,” the MP said.

Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford have been attending national caucus meetings regularly since the Liberals formed government after the 2015 election. At the first caucus meeting on the Hill in November 2015, Mr. Trudeau introduced both of his senior staffers to the caucus, and told his MPs that any communication from them should be deemed as coming from him. A personal friend of Mr. Trudeau from his university days, Mr. Butts is known as the most influential staffer in the government, and some mockingly call him “PM Butts.” One MP said that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford have the “ultimate say” in what happens in this government.

P.E.I. Liberal Sen. Percy Downe, former chief of staff to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, told The Hill Times last week the PMO staffers did not attend caucus meetings during Mr. Chrétien’s 10 years in power so that caucus members could privately discuss issues.

“No one from the PMO attended national caucus meetings, but every government is different,” said Sen. Downe. “It was the attitude that the meeting was for the MPs and Senators to be able to speak frankly.”

Tim Murphy, former chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin echoed the same view, although he said he did attend some meetings where there were special circumstances.

“As you know, I wasn’t an elected official myself. So, my view was, to a certain extent, those caucus events were opportunities for the caucus to talk among themselves which included, obviously, the prime minister, who was a caucus member, and to have those discussions without staff. But that practice varies depending on the prime minister and the chief of staff,” said Mr. Murphy, now a partner in the law firm of McMillan LLP in Toronto. “The principal of having an opportunity for the elected members to speak freely without staff is fine. I understand that, and I never had a problem with that.”

Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that they would not object to Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford attending caucus meetings in special circumstances, such as where there is a presentation from the party on election readiness, fundraising, polling, or on any other important issue. But they said, otherwise, only elected MPs should be able to attend and have discussions privately behind closed doors.

“It’s a place for elected people,” a second MP told The Hill Times.

Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, in an emailed response told The Hill Times he used to regularly attend national caucus meetings, and that Ray Novak, principal secretary to Mr. Harper, did attend some meetings, and not all. Mr. Giorno said that he used to attend caucus meetings whether Mr. Harper was present in the caucus or not, to “take notes of action items and items requiring follow-up.” He pointed out that during caucus meetings, he never sat with caucus members and sat along a wall in the caucus room separate from MPs and Senators. Mr. Giorno also said that when he served as chief of staff to then-Ontario premier Mike Harris, he also used to attend caucus meetings at Queen’s Park.

“I was careful in my seating and my conduct to demonstrate respect for the fact that this meeting belonged to the caucus and that I was only present in a staff capacity in order to record items necessary for action and follow-up,” wrote Mr. Giorno, who now is a partner in the law firm of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. “I should also add that I was present for the entire caucus meeting, whether or not the prime minister or premier was there.”

Four-term Liberal MP Mark Holland (Ajax, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Sask.), disagreed that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford should not be present in the caucus meetings. He said it’s “incredibly important” that the PMO staff are aware about the views of MPs on regional, and national issues, and upcoming pieces of legislation.

“It’s incredibly important for staff to hear the concerns and views of caucus,” said Mr. Holland who served as MP from 2004-2011, lost the 2011 election, and was elected again in 2015. “They listen attentively to what’s being said and that’s important.”

Liberal MP Greg Fergus (Hull-Aylmer, Que.) agreed. “Without revealing what happens in caucus, I can certainly say that I have no reason to believe that not one of us has not expressed fully and frankly our feelings with each other and with the prime minister,” said Mr. Fergus, who in the past also served as the Liberal Party’s national director. “We have a really, really great and robust discussions at our caucus meetings.”

Mr. Holland and Mr. Fergus also dismissed the suggestion that their government has not consulted the caucus sufficiently on the gun legislation expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Mr. Holland said that he talked to every Liberal MP who had any interest in this legislation, in some cases “11,12, 13” times.

“I haven’t heard that,” said Mr. Holland. “Unless I moved in with somebody, I don’t know how I could have more consultations with people.”

When reminded that Mr. Harvey raised the issue of insufficient consultation in the last caucus meeting, in front of all Liberal MPs, including Mr. Trudeau, he said: “Look, as I say, the consultations on what was in the platform has been not only exhaustive, but of course we all ran on what was in the platform,” said Mr. Holland. “There’s no surprises.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, centre, accompanied by Liberal MP Mark Holland, left, and Liberal MP Greg Fergus, at the Gun and Gang Violence Summit in Ottawa, last week. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Hill Times reported last April that Mr. Goodale held a consultation session on gun legislation with Liberal MPs on Feb. 21, 2017, in the Sir John A. Macdonald Building. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) also attended the meeting.

At dissolution prior to the 2015 election, Liberals had 36 MPs in the caucus, but won 184 seats making a net gain of 148 seats. An overwhelming majority of the Liberal caucus is made up of first-time MPs, and the 2019 election will be their first re-election campaign. Liberal sources said the possibility of any negative reaction to the gun legislation, especially in rural ridings, make these MPs worried about their prospects in 2019.

According to Elections Canada, an electoral district entirely composed of rural polling divisions is deemed as a rural riding. Of the 338 total ridings across the country, just three meet this criteria. A riding consisting entirely of urban polling divisions is considered urban. There are 166 ridings like this out of the maximum 338. There are 71 rural/urban ridings where most of the polling stations, but not all, are considered rural. And there are another 98 mixed ridings where the balance goes more toward the urban side, and those considered urban/rural.

Of the 71 rural/urban ridings, the Conservatives won 37, the Liberals 28, the NDP five, and Bloc one.

Some Liberal MPs and political insiders told The Hill Times that their key concern with the consultation process was that it has to be meaningful, and wondered if their concerns would be addressed in the legislation. They also questioned if their leadership, including the senior PMO staff, would be able to handle the “blowback” from the Conservatives, and other opponents of gun control. With recent public opinion polls heading in the wrong direction, and considering the way the PMO handled Mr. Trudeau’s India trip, along with other self-inflicted gaffes—including the PM’s vacation at the Aga Khan’s private island, and around the corporate tax changes—MPs and political insiders said they’re forced to second guess the judgment of the senior staffers.

These Liberals said that party platform explicitly pledged not to create a new national long gun registry, and they know it’s not going to happen, but still they think their political opponents and some in the “gun lobby” will wrongly make rural Canadians believe that the Liberals have brought back the gun registry, or spin the legislation in some other negative way which will generate a storm of “pushback, blowback and overplay.” Liberals said that they worry that some rural MPs who won by close margins could lose their seats if this issue is not handled properly, and they are nervous because they feel they are not being listened to. Most are nervous rookies MPs who feel like they can’t be honest or critical in national caucus meetings.

“The track record that this government has on communications is not stellar, and this is an issue that needs very good communication,” a former senior Liberal political strategist said. “There’s enough headaches in politics without inviting more.”

Liberal MPs and insiders also wondered why Mr. Goodale hosted the one-day National Summit on the Gun and Gang Violence in Ottawa last week during a break week when all Parliamentarians are in their ridings and regions. They said it should have been held when Parliament was in session so that they could have attended.

But Mr. Fergus told The Hill Times that it’s never easy to find a time for these summits that’s convenient for all or most Parliamentarians. Also, he said, when Parliament is in session, there’s usually not enough time for MPs and Senators to attend because of the busy parliamentary work schedule.

Some MPs interviewed said that they wish the government had not touched the gun issue in their current mandate, because they fear political consequences in the next election. When reminded that this would have meant breaking the election promise, a third MP said:

“I don’t think it’s needed at this time, look, ‘we’ve got other things we’ve got to do,’” said the MP.

Mr. Harvey declined to comment on the level of consultation with rural Liberal MPs, again citing caucus confidentiality. However, he hoped that the upcoming legislation would be balanced and represent the interests of both rural and urban Canadians.


Rural/Urban and Urban/Rural Ridings won by 5 per cent or less, 2015 election

Riding name Province Winner Party Riding type 2015 margin of victory
St. John’s East Nfld. Nick Whalen Liberal U/R 1.4%
Fundy Royal N.B Alaina Lockhart Liberal R/U 3.8%
Beloeil-Chambly Que. Matthew Dubé NDP U/R 1.7%
Pierre-Boucher-Les Patriotes-Vercheres Que. Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc U/R 0.4%
Chicoutimi-Le Fjord Que. Denis Lemieux Liberal U/R 1.4%
Jonquiere Que. Karine Trudel NDP U/R 0.7%
Lac-Saint Jean Que. Denis Lebel Conservative U/R 4.8%
Laurentides-Labelle Que. David Graham Liberal U/R 2.4%
Mirabel Que. Simon Marcil Bloc U/R 1.4%
Montmagny-L’Islet-Kamouraska-Riviere-du-Loup Que. Bernard Généroux Conservative R/U 0.6%
Riviere-du-Nord Que. Rhéal Fortin Bloc U/R 1.9%
Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot Que. Brigitte Sansoucy NDP U/R 1.1%
Saint-Jean Que. Jean Rioux Liberal U/R 4.1%
Salaberry-Suroit Que. Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP U/R 1.3%
Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte Ont. Alex Nuttall Conservative U/R 0.2%
Cambridge Ont. Bryan May Liberal U/R 4.5%
Chatham-Kent-Leamington Ont. Dave Van Kesteren Conservative R/U 4.5%
Hastings-Lennox and Addington Ont. Mike Bossio Liberal R/U 0.5%
Kenora Ont. Bob Nault Liberal R/U 1.6%
King-Vaughan Ont. Deb Schulte Liberal U/R 3.2%
Kitchener-Conestoga Ont. Harold Albrecht Conservative R/U 0.5%
Nickel Belt Ont. Marc Serré Liberal U/R 5%
Northumberland-Peterborough South Ont. Kim Rudd Liberal R/U 3%
Parry Sound-Muskoka Ont. Tony Clement Conservative R/U 4.4%
Simcoe North Ont. Bruce Stanton Conservative R/U 3.7%
Churchill-Keewatinook Aski Man. Niki Ashton NDP R/U 3%
Kildonan-St. Paul Man. MaryAnn Mihychuk Liberal U/R 2.8%
Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River Sask. Georgina Jolibois NDP R/U 0.3%
Regina-Lewvan Sask. Erin Weir NDP U/R 0.3%
Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola B.C. Dan Albas Conservative U/R 2.4%
Kootenay-Columbia B.C. Wayne Stetski NDP U/R 0.4%
Mission–Matsqui-Fraser Canyon B.C. Jati Sidhu Liberal U/R 2.3%
Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge B.C. Dan Ruimy Liberal U/R 2.5%

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