Liberals’ caucus decisions aren’t just murky — they also appear to be illegal

Liberals’ caucus decisions aren’t just murky — they also appear to be illegal

OTTAWA—Who decides who’s in and who’s out of Liberal caucus?

Is it the prime minister? Is it caucus?

You can be forgiven for not knowing.

As the governing Liberals have tried to figure out what to do about former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, even they don’t appear to be sure.

It should not be this way.

Under a law passed by Parliament in 2015 all parliamentary caucuses were obliged to decide by internal vote at their first meeting what is the extent of the powers of the prime minister and the leader of caucus to decide key issues like membership and expulsion.

Conservative MP Michael Chong, who sponsored the changes in a private members’ bill that became the Reform Act, says the Liberals, and the New Democrats, are in clear violation of that law because neither caucus took the requisite votes after the last general election.

In the Liberal party’s case, that has led to much confusion over how to decide the fate of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott.

The Conservatives did vote on the measure. And one of its votes determined that only the Conservative caucus, elected MPs and senators, can decide on the fate of a fellow caucus member, not the leader. One can resign, but leader Andrew Scheer can’t kick anyone out without a vote of caucus.

“It is clear. This is not an option,” said Chong in an interview. “There is no provision to defer votes, no provision to delay votes, no provision not to vote. You must vote four times determining the powers at the heart of our democratic system, what powers the prime minister will have and what powers the caucus will have.”

On Wednesday, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes quit caucus, in apparent regret over having disappointed her caucus colleagues when she gave an interview critical of Justin Trudeau at the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair. She tweeted an apology over the “unintended effects” her interview had.

It fuelled the Conservative Opposition’s attacks Wednesday on Trudeau as a “fake feminist” who drives out strong women or silences them in his cabinet and caucus.

Yet two higher-profile players in the SNC-Lavalin drama — MPs Wilson-Raybould and Philpott — remain in the Liberal caucus fold despite having quit cabinet.

Each has protested the Trudeau government’s handling of allegations the PMO tried to politically influence the SNC-Lavalin prosecution. But their reasons for quitting cabinet have still not been publicly detailed.

Philpott told the Star in a brief interview Wednesday it was not the time to speak at length about why she quit cabinet but remains in a caucus led by Trudeau.

“My letter made it clear that I believe that the Liberal party has the best plan for our country and I am fully supportive of our party and our approach on a range of important issues,” she said.

Senior officials in the PMO told the Star in recent weeks it would be up to Liberal caucus colleagues to decide their fate.

Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested it would be his call, telling reporters he was “reflecting” on their future.

By Wednesday he had clearly decided to lose them entirely would be more damaging.

Without naming Wilson-Raybould or Philpott, Trudeau suggested bygones could be bygones, but left open the possibility that all wounds weren’t healed.

“Any member wanting to run for us in the next election obviously believes in what we want to do and the two members in question have been saying, thus far, they wish to run for the Liberal party in the next election,” Trudeau said Wednesday.

Trudeau tried to make a virtue of necessity, saying it is a “strength of our party that there is a diversity of opinions and perspectives.”

Yet Michael Chong says Trudeau fails to see where the bright red lines of the law are crossed.

Chong draws a thread through what he sees as the Liberal government’s disdain for the independence of the attorney general’s role in overseeing prosecutions in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the Liberals’ dismissal of the Reform Act that required votes to determine the mechanisms to expel caucus members.

“The law was broken. It was not complied with,” he said. “It says ‘shall’ (vote) at the first meeting of caucus, not at a future meeting or at a meeting; it says after a general election at the first meeting of caucus, ‘shall’ take a vote.”

In fact, Chong wrote Wilson-Raybould when she first took office, and her successor David Lametti, before the SNC-Lavalin affair broke on Feb. 7, to flag the failure of the governing party to follow that law.

Neither replied to him, Chong said.

After the Star sent an inquiry to Lametti’s office Wednesday, spokesman David Taylor replied by email: “The letter was received. The Government will be providing a written response to Mr. Chong in due course.”

The failure to follow the law now has practical effects, says Chong.

“The prime minister’s authority to expel a member of the Liberal caucus is questionable because the prime minister and his leadership team prevented Liberal MPs from exercising their rights …to determine caucus expulsions.”

But more important, Chong says with the Liberals’ disregard for its actual obligations under the Parliament of Canada Act, combined with its role in pressuring the former attorney general on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, violating the independence of her office, “it is clear this government is threatening the rule of law.”

“These matters concern the independence of our judicial system and the balance of power at the heart of our democracy. So I don’t see them as technicalities I see them as a serious undermining of the rule of law.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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