Are Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott still members of the Liberal caucus? The party leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says they’re not – he says he expelled them.
But on Tuesday, Ms. Philpott rose in the House of Commons on a point of privilege to ask the Speaker of the House to look into that. She believes that Mr. Trudeau did not follow the law. And she may be right.
On one level, the question of whether the two former ministers are still members of the government is entirely academic. Many Liberal members of Parliament are furious at the two, believing they have undermined Liberal chances for re-election. They want them gone. To some observers, it’s as if Ms. Philpott is merely asking to be kicked out all over again.
But this is about something bigger: Who has the power to expel an MP from her party? That is not a theoretical question. Who gets to remove an MP from a caucus, and how, goes to the heart of the relationship between MPs and a party leader, and between Parliament and the PM.
It’s fundamental to how our democracy works, and where power lies.
In 2015, Parliament passed an amendment to the Parliament of Canada Act – the rules of representative democracy – to clarify the power of MPs in relation to party leaders.
The product of a private member’s bill from Conservative MP Michael Chong, it made explicit the customary understanding of that relationship, which is that party leaders are responsible to MPs, and not the other way around. The bill faced opposition from the leadership of all parties, but ultimately passed.
As a result, Section 49 of the Parliament of Canada Act says that, at their first meeting after an election, each party caucus must hold four votes. The votes decide whether MPs retain four specific powers or give them to the party leader. Among those is the power to expel a caucus member.
On that issue, the Parliament of Canada Act orders each party to choose between two options. Option 1: MPs can effectively hand this power to the party leader. Option 2: MPs can keep that power, with a vote on removing a member from caucus triggered if 20 per cent of a party’s MPs ask for one, with expulsion occurring if a majority of party MPs vote for it.
The Conservative Party says that, in November, 2015, it followed the law and held the four required votes – and on the matter of expelling a caucus member, that power was voted into the hands of MPs. As a result, only Tory MPs can boot a Tory MP. The leader can’t do it unilaterally.
As for the governing Liberal Party, it’s less than clear what they did or didn’t do at their first postelection caucus meeting 3½ years ago.
Ms. Philpott certainly knows whether or not the four recorded votes called for by law were held, since she was in the caucus room. Yet, out of respect for traditions of cabinet and caucus secrecy, when she spoke in the Commons Tuesday, she didn’t directly say the votes never happened.
Instead, she pointed to an interview with the Toronto Star given by Liberal MP John McKay, who in March gave the clearest answer any Liberal has ever given on this question: He said there was no recorded vote.
The Speaker, Liberal MP Geoff Regan, has been asked to rule on all of this. Internal party matters are not his purview, but this isn’t purely an internal party issue. It’s something spelled out, explicitly, in the law governing how Parliament operates.
Holding these votes on the powers of party members versus party leaders is not just a suggestion. It’s not just “Michael Chong’s bill.” It’s the Parliament of Canada Act. It’s the law, and a fundamental one at that.
Whatever the Speaker rules, and whatever the result that has on the two ex-ministers in question, the fact that Ms. Philpott raised this matter is likely to yield long-term benefits for Canadian democracy.
At their first postelection caucus meetings in November, 2019, journalists will ask each party whether they held the four required votes on the balance of power between MPs and leaders. It’s hard to believe any party will dare ignore the law.
And MPs will start a new session of Parliament with a reminder of how they are not just there to serve the party leadership, but also to hold it to account.