Angela Wright is a writer, political analyst and former Conservative political staffer at the House of Commons.
The ongoing SNC-Lavalin affair continues to consume Ottawa and beyond – and it’s caused opposition leaders, pundits and Canadians alike to call for heads to roll, including that of the Prime Minister himself. Last week’s testimony by Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, did little to abate the growing chorus for resignation and caucus departures. And Mr. Trudeau’s later statement, lacking any sign of contrition, failed to brush them off. This is a classic instinct, after all: when high-profile political scandals erupt, the reaction quickly devolves to seeking immediate retribution.
However, it’s not up to Canadians – or to the opposition, either – to determine whether the Prime Minister should resign, or whether Jody Wilson-Raybould or Jane Philpott, who resigned from their cabinet posts, should leave the Liberal caucus. And to believe otherwise would lay bare a lack of understanding of how Canada’s democracy works.
Lost in much of the debate has been serious consideration around who chooses the prime minister, and how this impacts the appropriateness for us to opine about whether the prime minister should resign or former cabinet ministers should leave caucus. The prime minister is simply the leader of the political party with the most seats; we do not elect them directly. And the current Prime Minister can only be removed if he is deposed as leader of the Liberal party or if he chooses to leave office. As long as Mr. Trudeau has the support of Liberal caucus members and the confidence that he can weather through this affair, he should stay. Without any evidence of his involvement in illegal activity, it’s difficult to argue that a prime minister with the support of his caucus should be removed seven months before an election, if for no other reason than that this can set a dangerous precedent.
Australian political parties have a tradition of allowing leaders to be defeated by caucus members, but this high tolerance for leadership-overthrow-by-caucus has produced six prime ministers in the last 11 years, with no elected prime minister surviving an entire three-year term. If Canadians continue to insist a sitting prime minister be deposed without grievous circumstances, it could lead Canada down a similar path of political instability.
Certainly, relationships between caucus members and their leaders can be contentious. Anyone who has ever worked in politics knows that caucus members don’t necessarily agree with or even support the candidate who becomes leader. Conservative MP Michael Chong attempted to make this relationship less fraught with his Reform Act, first introduced in 2013, which was meant to strengthen the role of MPs and remove the concentration of power from a party leader.
While there are good reasons for a politician to be kicked out of caucus – in cases where reprehensible behaviour such as sexual misconduct must be quickly disavowed – neither Ms. Philpott nor Ms. Wilson-Raybould behaved in such a way as to bring disrepute to the party or the government. Both were right to leave cabinet if they couldn’t in good conscience continue to abide by the cabinet convention of appearing to publicly agree.
Asking Liberal caucus members who no longer support Mr. Trudeau after this affair to leave caucus is as ludicrous as it would have been to ask Ontario PC MPPs to leave the party after Doug Ford was chosen leader. After all, Mr. Ford received nearly no public support from any of the sitting MPPs, and little support from nominated candidates.
There are many practical reasons why an unhappy backbencher would stay in caucus, too. When a politician leaves caucus, they also leave the party. This means they must set up a new electoral district association with people equally willing to leave the party and find new staff, as most political staffers prefer to stay with caucus members. The absence of dedicated research staff makes fulfilling one’s duties in the legislature difficult to balance with constituents’ needs.
Even though the SNC-Lavalin affair has wider repercussions for the country, decisions about who should resign are internal matters or personal matters. It’s not up to the opposition or even Canadians to determine who should serve as the leader of a political party or who should sit in that party’s caucus. And calling for the resignation of a prime minister hints at a poisonous attitude that threatens to distort our Westminster-style system: that we head to the ballot box to elect our leaders directly, rather than raising them up through votes for a local politician. Ironically, it is this very thinking – and the according centralization of power in leaders’ offices across Canada – that arguably got Mr. Trudeau in this position in the first place.
So, if Canadians want to send a message, they have only one recourse: voting for a different candidate for MP in the upcoming election. It’s the way the system works.