There is some tension in the ranks as the drama plays out — one MP called the situation “appalling” and condemned Trudeau’s criticism of Wilson-Raybould for her alleged inaction in flagging any improper pressure.
But another MP seemed to capture of the mood of many as he downplayed the potential political impact, noting he had encountered no reaction from constituents during this break week spent in the riding. “I’m not at all convinced this is a tipping thing,” the Toronto-area MP said.
In fact, he said, the issue may play to Trudeau’s advantage in Quebec, where there are concerns that a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin would exact a steep financial penalty on the Quebec firm and with it, job losses.
On Thursday, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, chair of the Commons justice committee that will hold hearings into the affair, floated the idea that Wilson-Raybould was replaced by Quebec MP David Lametti as justice minister because of language.
“There’s a lot of legal issues coming up in Quebec and the prime minister may well have decided he needed a justice minister that could speak French,” Housefather said in an interview with Montreal radio station CJAD.
“The idea that she was shuffled because of this unproven allegation to me is quite ridiculous,” Housefather said.
The MP for Mount Royal said it was “fairly clear” that Wilson-Raybould was “unhappy” at being shuffled but said those decisions are always the prime minister’s prerogative.
“The prime minister has the undisputed right to choose who is in what cabinet position, and there’s millions of reasons that people can be shuffled from one position to another,” Housefather said in the radio interview.
Wilson-Raybould has not yet spoken on the matter, citing solicitor-client privilege. But in the letter announcing her resignation, she said she was seeking the advice of former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell “on the topics that I am legally permitted to discuss in this matter.”
Conservative and New Democrats have urged Trudeau to waive privilege, giving Wilson-Raybould freedom to speak if she wants.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen, whose motion to call the former attorney general and key political staff was struck down by Liberals on Wednesday, said pressure might be the only thing to convince Liberal members of the justice committee to call Wilson-Raybould to answer questions about the affair.
“Canadians are really concerned about this. They are maybe having flashbacks to the sponsorship scandal and days of denial and insider corruption,” he said. “If that continues to be the reaction, then that pressure will build, and I think that’s the only thing that will crack open the lid.”
Caucus sources said the prime minister sought to reassure MPs during a teleconference call from Winnipeg on Tuesday, hours after Wilson-Raybould’s sudden resignation. The call was for MPs only, not staff.
Trudeau told his caucus that Wilson-Raybould’s resignation was a surprise, reiterated what he’d said publicly, and assured them “that ‘guys, we’re OK here, we’re absolutely confident that nothing untoward or nothing outside of what we could do was done,’” according to one caucus source.
“He said just keep your powder dry and this will all sort itself out,” the MP said.
The MP said Trudeau was “confident that we’re OK,” adding that many MPs recognize that “he needs our help and support now.
“There are a lot of newcomers in caucus who haven’t been through this kind of thing before. It’s been a lot of rainbows and unicorns and this is the first bit of rough water that we’ve faced, but people believe in Trudeau. They know him to be a good person, an honest person. He’s a principled guy.”
On the other hand, the MP said, “nobody knows” what Wilson-Raybould is thinking but in the dispute over whether there was pressure, “most are thinking it is an issue of interpretation.”
However, the MP was not critical of Wilson-Raybould, and suggested it’s not unusual for a rookie minister not to have a lot of allies in caucus because they’re new to Ottawa and suddenly land busy jobs.
“She was there to make a difference, not really to make a lot of friends.”
Another MP said it’s obvious the Prime Minister’s Office is concerned about how the caucus would react, because in addition to the Tuesday conference call there were followup phone calls by PMO officials the next day to caucus members.
The MP said Trudeau was clearly seeking to shore up support with his call.
“I could feel he was under stress, but he sounded sincere, thoughtful. There was no cockiness. Sometimes he can be cocky and shoot from the hip, but there was no cockiness,” the MP said, adding that it was a “confidence-building call.”
The MP, who has since spoken to others as well, said it was clear that many MPs are giving the prime minister “the benefit of doubt.”
He ascribed support for Trudeau to the “level of affection and loyalty towards the prime minister.” There would be “no comparison” to whatever might be felt toward Wilson-Raybould, he said.
That MP suggested the dispute is the result of perceptions and signals crossed: “A message given and a message received will always be different.
“So the message given by the PMO, obviously there was a message given about this: Are you doing this? What’s this? What are the consequences? That’s appropriate conversation. Message received: Could be pressure. Message received after the divorce papers are filed, after you find out there’s a girlfriend, after you find out all those things: Oh, I was being pressured.
“To me this looks like revisionist feelings.
“She hears it when she’s justice minister one way then when she’s demoted and looking at her career and her reputation and all that stuff she hears it differently, and says why was I demoted, maybe I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, maybe I was being pressured.”
The MP had spoken to about half a dozen other MPs, and said, “I’m hearing the benefit of the doubt going to the prime minister.”
But not all Liberals are on board. One MP called the situation “appalling” and said the government’s poor handling of the controversy has only highlighted issues of arrogance, running roughshod over MPs and the problems of centralized decision-making in the prime minister’s office.
“There is a great political risk because it all attacks the credibility and character of the leader. He’s not coming across well, not at all,” the MP said.
He said prime minister’s strategic decision to publicly declare that the onus was on Wilson-Raybould to flag any improper pressure only invites her to fight back.
“Why would you put her into a situation where you’ve ruffled more feathers, caused more irritation, caused anger, a bit of anguish? What do you expect her to do?” the MP said.
And there have been public expressions of support for Wilson-Raybould from her former cabinet colleagues.
In a statement to the Star Thursday, Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said that Wilson-Rayboud’s advice was “invaluable as a candidate and member of our team.”
“Her dedication to fundamental change in Canada’s relationship with First Nations is unparalleled — she will continue to be a strong voice and I hope to continue working with her on these critical issues,” Bennett said.
Toronto-area MP Jane Philpott, the President of the Treasury Board, took to Twitter earlier in the week to post a picture of her with Wilson-Raybould and an encouraging note: “You taught me so much — particularly about Indigenous history, rights and justice … I know you will continue to serve Canadians.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga