Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is, by nature, a gregarious, extroverted sort. He thrives on the energy of others. We have seen evidence of this in his ease with crowds and with the media. He charms people with his personal charisma and his enthusiasm for selfies. He exudes confidence.
In politics, confidence is always an important and valuable asset but, in parliamentary systems such as ours, confidence has a more enhanced significance. It is a constitutional matter in addition to being a personality trait. The confidence convention requires that governments hold the confidence of the House of Commons in order to hold power legitimately. Therefore, confidence is the lifeblood of a government. You can’t survive without it.
The SNC-Lavalin story, and former attorney-general Jody Wilson–Raybould’s testimony that she was unduly pressed to help the company to avoid criminal prosecution, have created an acute crisis of confidence for the Trudeau government. In her resignation letter, which she made public Monday, Jane Philpott explained that she could not continue as a cabinet minister because she has “lost confidence” in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin matter. Given the centrality of the concept of confidence in our system, these are very serious words.
While other ministers have expressed confidence in the Trudeau government, I suspect other resignations are forthcoming. These pronunciations of confidence also smack of a PMO directive.
Regardless, there are a few reasons why Ms. Philpott’s resignation from cabinet is nothing short of catastrophic for the government.
First, ministerial resignations of any kind are rare, especially at the federal level. But resignations on principle are almost unheard of, especially when the minister makes it clear that this is the case. Political resignations are often buttressed by non-specific talking points, including the always popular, “I want to spend more time with my family.” This type of line from a minister bolsters privacy and helps to shield the government from criticism. In contrast, Ms. Philpott did not mince words. She does not want to resign but she has to, given the moral space between her and the government.
Second, Ms. Philpott was one of the brightest lights in the Trudeau cabinet. A rookie MP, she mastered highly complex portfolios and was well respected by stakeholders, the media, and political peers. Some say that in politics, anyone is replaceable – but she could be an exception that proves the rule. And, given her reputation as a person of sound character and judgment, her resignation poses the question: If she doesn’t have confidence in the Prime Minister’s leadership, why should we?
Third, her resignation is not in isolation. This is the third ministerial resignation letter to cross the Prime Minister’s desk this winter. Are there more to come? What about caucus members? Celina Caesar-Chavannes, once the Prime Minister‘s parliamentary secretary, has indicated that she will not seek re-election.
One effect of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony is that there’s now a clear line in the sand and the beginnings of a civil war in the Liberal fold. The grey area in which MPs could plead to be both loyal to the Prime Minister and sympathetic to Jody Wilson-Raybould is quickly disappearing. They have to choose a side. Ms. Philpott has made hers clear. If others follow her lead, the Prime Minister’s confidence problem worsens.
Given his majority in the House, it would seem a stretch to suggest that a loss of confidence in the constitutional sense is imminent. This would require a serious caucus revolt. Regardless, the issue of confidence is not reducible to binary terms. A government can hardly survive a series of resignations from its strongest members. Confidence is not something to be claimed by the skin of a government’s teeth.
Often, those who are attracted to political office tend to be confident people with a higher than usual tolerance for risk. They tend to be attracted to power. These ministerial resignations, particularly those of Ms. Raybould and Ms. Philpott, run counter to this psychological profile. They both seem to have cut their careers as ministers short on the basis of principle. Back in 2015, then Prime Minister said he wanted to do government differently, to be more inclusive in decision-making, to follow a different path from governments before him.
Perhaps he got his wish, but at what cost?