Lori Turnbull is director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
In the latest development in the story involving the Prime Minister’s Office, Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin, Gerald Butts has resigned. This is big news but not totally unexpected, given the magnitude of the political crisis. Someone had to go. In his departing statement via Twitter, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister denied that he or anyone else in the PMO had put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, in her role as attorney-general, for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin.
In the time since The Globe broke the story less than two weeks ago, observers have been speculating as to whose head would roll. In the context of the Trudeau PMO, there is no bigger player than Gerry Butts. He’s known to the country as the Prime Minister’s confidant, his right hand, and his most trusted political adviser. His resignation is significant – but won’t do anything to help the Liberals.
Mr. Butts seemed to offer his resignation as a sacrifice. It appears to be a peace offering to voters: if I give myself, can we forget this ever happened? There is no new information in his statement, no admission of guilt on his or anyone else’s part, and no further clarity on the issues at hand. In this light, Mr. Butts’s departure likely won’t help make the issue go away for the Liberals. On the contrary, it might open new questions as to why he took it upon himself to walk away.
The story will continue to play out, so the real question is: What will happen to the Liberals now?
Under Mr. Butts’s tenure, the Liberal Party of Canada underwent significant transformation. It used to be that the Liberals were known as one of only two alternatives to govern the country. Some even called them Canada’s “natural governing party.” Mr. Butts was at the helm of the party’s attempts to push itself into a post-partisan era where all would be welcome under the Liberal tent. For example, in the selection process that chose Mr. Trudeau as leader in 2013, the party moved somewhat away from the concept of party membership to opening up voting to supporters of the party as well as members. Historically, one of the major (if not the main) perks of party membership was the exclusive privilege of voting to choose the leader. The Liberals’ departure from this was at least symbolically significant.
Once Mr. Trudeau assumed the leadership of the party, he moved quickly to disassociate himself and the Liberal members of Parliament from Liberal senators. And, once he became Prime Minister, he took steps to remove partisanship from the Senate altogether through a new appointments system. Though it is difficult to argue against removing blind patronage from the Senate (or any institution, for that matter), one effect of this change was to introduce a degree of unpredictability in the Liberal government’s pursuit of its policy plans. The government cannot count on support in the Senate, since it has severed ties with senators who identify as Liberals.
Further, upon assuming the leadership of the party, Mr. Trudeau embarked on a campaign to recruit a number of high-profile star candidates. This strategy was likely beneficial in the Liberals’ decisive win in 2015, but the fact remains that many of these candidates do not have deep ties to the Liberal Party. Instead, many of them had no connection to partisan politics whatsoever and no loyalty to the Liberals in particular.
Are we are seeing some of the implications of the Liberals’ move away from traditional party politics? Elected members are talking to the media about feeling pressure not to speak up during caucus meetings. Several caucus members have tweeted in solidarity with Ms. Wilson-Raybould. Long-time Liberals, including Mark Eyking, have confirmed that they will not seek re-election. Much of the press surrounding the SNC-Lavalin story is focused on the extent to which the accusations against the PMO are off brand. True story. But party runs deeper than brand. In the current climate, what is left of Liberal voter loyalty? Will that save the Liberals in the next election?
There is, and has been for a long time, a palpable sense of hostility and distrust toward political parties in Canada and elsewhere. Partisanship has become a dirty word. But party loyalty could be essential to electoral victory in 2019, especially if the brand has been tarnished.