Jane Philpott may legitimately feel aggrieved by her and Jody Wilson-Raybould’s expulsions from the Liberal caucus, but both former cabinet ministers should be careful how they pick and choose their future political fights with the Liberal Party because people have already started to raise questions about their endgame, say Liberal MPs and political insiders.
“What is it that they’re trying to do here,” said three-term Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.) in an interview with The Hill Times in reaction to Ms. Philpott’s (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) recent question of privilege accusing the leadership of breaking the law for not following the proper process in her and Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) expulsions from caucus. “Are they trying to help the Conservatives indirectly? Like what is the endgame?”
After more than two months of political infighting in the Liberal caucus over the handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) finally booted Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould out of the Liberal fold on April 2 for their open disagreement with his leadership and the caucus. The two top cabinet ministers had previously resigned from cabinet over how the prime minister and cabinet had handled the entire SNC-Lavalin controversy. Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she was inappropriately pressured by the prime minister and top PMO and PCO officials to override the director of public prosecutions and negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin in a criminal prosecution on bribery charges related to contracts in Libya. Ms. Wilson-Raybould also said she was shuffled from justice to veterans affairs because she wouldn’t play along with what the prime minister wanted. The two ministers have maintained they resigned on principle, are defending the rule of law, and continue to say they have no endgame.
Last week, Ms. Philpott raised a question of privilege in the House in which she said Prime Minister Trudeau contravened the law, the Reform Act, governing the expulsion of MPs from parliamentary caucuses, when he expelled her and the former justice minister from the Liberal caucus.
To substantiate her claim, she referred to the Reform Act that specifies rules around expulsions and readmissions of caucus members, leadership reviews, election of interim leaders and the election and removal of caucus chairs. To expel an MP from the caucus, according to the rules, the caucus chair needs a notice from 20 per cent of caucus members and a majority vote in support of expulsion.
After each federal election, the Reform Act requires all parliamentary caucuses to hold votes on each of the four elements contained in the legislation that became law prior to the last federal election. If a caucus rejects those rules in the vote, they can choose not to abide by them.
Ms. Philpott said in her speech in the House on April 9 that after forming government in 2015, the Liberal caucus did not hold a vote on the Reform Act, which broke the law. She argued that it’s not the prerogative of the leader anymore to unilaterally expel MPs from the caucus and could be done only through a secret ballot vote.
“The prime minister’s words that night [April 2] to the Liberal caucus are important to underscore because expulsion should not be his decision to take unilaterally. However, the decision had been already made,” Ms. Philpott said in her speech in the House, which attracted national media attention. “Members of Parliament are not accountable to the leader; the leader is accountable to Members of Parliament. This is a constitutional convention.”
In replying to questions from reporters on the issue last week, Prime Minister Trudeau conceded a vote had not taken place to expel the two MPs, but added that he had consulted “extensively with caucus” and the “will of the caucus was very, very clear.”
Mr. Lamoureux said in the House on April 9 that the Liberal caucus decided in their caucus meeting after the last election not to adopt the provisions in the Reform Act, and the Liberal caucus chair informed the Speaker about the decision of the caucus members three years ago.
In response to Ms. Philpott’s question of privilege, House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) said last Thursday that he has no jurisdiction over the inner workings of parliamentary caucuses and therefore cannot rule on the issue.
“The chair is unable to conclude that the member for Markham-Stouffville, Ont., has been obstructed in the fulfillment of her parliamentary functions,” said Mr. Regan on April 11. “Accordingly, I cannot find that there is a prima facie question of privilege.”
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.) told The Hill Times she was disappointed with the Speaker’s ruling because in her view Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s privileges had been breached by the expulsion without a caucus vote. She wondered about the recourse for MPs like Ms. Philpott who cannot take this issue to court, since the Speaker has no jurisdiction on internal caucus functions.
“If the Speaker who upholds all the rest of the rules by which we engage is not going to get involved where could you go to get that enforced, would be my question,” said Ms. Gladu. “He’s the appropriate person. I’m disappointed in that ruling.”
Ms. Gladu said the Conservative caucus held a vote on the Reform Act after the election and approved that caucus members would vote to expel or readmit MPs from caucus. Ms. Gladu said the caucus, however, voted against the provision that dealt with MPs holding a leadership review of the party leader. She said they voted that way because the caucus recognizes that grassroots members of the party elect a party leader and they should be the ones holding a review of the leader.
In an emailed response to The Hill Times, NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont.), who is the dean of the NDP caucus and oversaw the vote, said the NDP did hold a vote on the Reform Act and the caucus voted down all the provisions.
“As is well-known, caucus meetings are confidential,” said Mr. Masse. “But as it pertains to the question of the Reform Act, we fulfilled the requirements of the act. Recorded votes were conducted rejecting all elements and the results were transmitted to the speaker, as required.”
Co-operative Commonwealth Federation MP Erin Weir (Regina-Lewvan, Sask.), who was expelled from the NDP last year, told The Hill Times the NDP caucus did not hold a vote for his expulsion as was required. He said his ejection from the caucus was decided by the leader. Mr. Weir pointed out that according to the Reform Act, the NDP caucus was supposed to hold a vote in the first caucus meeting after the 2015 vote on whether they wanted to adopt the provisions or not, which did not happen. He said the caucus did, however, vote on the Reform Act but it happened in 2016.
After the Speaker’s ruling last week, Mr. Weir said one of the ways to ensure that all parliamentary caucuses follow the law laid out in the Reform Act would be that media specifically follows after an election whether all caucuses hold votes on this and if they did what was the outcome.
Mr. Weir was expelled from the NDP caucus last year after a sexual harassment investigation but no charges were filed against him.
He said he is still in touch with his former NDP caucus colleagues and hoping he would be allowed back in the caucus and would be able to seek the party’s nomination for the October election.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lamoureux told The Hill Times last week he’s not sure what’s the “end game” for Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould. But, he said, by raising issues like the Question of Privilege in the House, they’re indirectly helping the Conservatives. He said his party has done good work since getting elected in 2015, and he would want the Liberals to win the next election as well.
Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen (Kingston and the Islands, Ont.) expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with The Toronto Star.
“I don’t know what they’re hoping out of it,” said Mr. Gerretsen. “It seems as though they’re extremely determined to just cause as much damage as they possibly can.”
Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, told The Hill Times that both Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have to be careful in picking and choosing their political fights going forward. He explained that by resigning from the cabinet both MPs said they were taking a principled position of expressing their discomfort with the way the leadership was handling the SNC-Lavalin affair. But, if now they started to raise issues that appeared in the public eye to undermine the leadership, they would be losing the support.
“They risk their reputations by going out all the time finding points of disagreement with the government and the party,” said Mr. Powers.
But Ms. Gladu said she did not believe Ms. Philpott had any “malicious intent” by raising her question of privilege in the House.
“I don’t think Jane Philpott is a malicious person, I have a lot of respect for her,” said Ms. Gladu. “She’s a person of integrity.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) told The Hill Times she was “profoundly disappointed” by the Speaker’s ruling and was hoping that Mr. Regan would find a creative way to address the issue raised by Ms. Philpott. She said she did not believe Ms. Philpott or Ms. Wilson-Raybould are doing anything to politically damage the Liberal Party.
“They’re struggling with an extremely partisan system and they’re people who are essentially motivated by principle,” said Ms. May.
Ms. May declined to say if she had officially reached out to both former cabinet ministers to invite them to join the Green Party. Ms. May said both MPs know they would be welcome to join her party if they choose to do that.
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