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Politics Liberal caucus expulsions broke federal law, Philpott says

Former Liberal cabinet ministers Jane Philpott, left, and Jody Wilson-Raybould speak to reporters before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, a day after being removed from the Liberal caucus, on April 3, 2019.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expelled her and Jody Wilson-Raybould using a unilateral process that violated federal law.

On Tuesday, Ms. Philpott asked the Speaker of the House of Commons to rule on whether her rights and those of Ms. Wilson-Raybould were violated when Mr. Trudeau unilaterally ejected them last week.

She said she believes the Parliament of Canada Act has been breached. That is because the Liberal caucus neglected to conduct recorded votes in 2015 when Parliament resumed after the federal election on whether to adopt new rules that were intended to give rank-and-file MPs more power. The requirement to vote on whether to use those rules is laid out in law.

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In 2015, a private member’s bill brought forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong was passed that amended the Parliament of Canada Act. It included the new rules that would give MPs more power in determining important decisions such as expelling MPs from caucus or readmitting them.

Mr. Chong’s rules say 20 per cent of a caucus must submit written notice to review an MP’s membership in the caucus, and that they can be ejected only if a majority of all caucus members vote to do so in a secret ballot.

Ms. Philpott says nothing of the sort happened before she and Ms. Wilson-Raybould were kicked out of the Liberal caucus. Mr. Trudeau declared to journalists on April 2: “I have taken the decision to expel the honourable members” from caucus.

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“We were expelled prior to the commencement of the Liberal caucus meeting," Ms. Philpott told the Commons. "The Prime Minister’s words that night to the Liberal caucus are important to underscore because expulsion should not be his decision to take unilaterally.”

Mr. Trudeau, speaking to reporters later on Tuesday, said while caucus didn’t vote to expel the two MPs, he nevertheless “consulted extensively with caucus” over the preceding weeks. “The will of caucus was very, very clear.”

The legislative changes enacted through Mr. Chong’s private members bill in 2015 require caucuses to meet after a federal election and take recorded votes on whether to adopt the new rules.

Liberal MP John McKay said “there was no vote” when the Liberal caucus met after the 2015 election to decide how to proceed with the rules Mr. Chong had set out. He said it was a consensus decision.

Ms. Philpott did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to provide comment on Ms. Philpott’s request to the Speaker, and referred questions to Liberal caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia.

Mr. Scarpaleggia said in a statement that the rules established by Mr. Chong do not apply to the Liberal caucus because it decided in 2015 not to adopt them.

“The decision about membership in caucus remains the Prime Minister’s prerogative,” he said.

“By implication, the Liberal caucus did not opt in to the … [Chong] suggestions for how to conduct internal caucus business,” Mr. Scarpaleggia said.

He said that in the fall of 2015 he had “communicated to the Speaker the will of the caucus in this regard.”

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Later on Tuesday, the Liberal government disputed Ms. Philpott’s allegation that the Parliament of Canada Act was broken.

Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary to the leader of the government in the House of Commons, rose in the chamber to explain how the Liberals believe they have not contravened the law. He said the caucus decided in November, 2015, that “the provisions” of the Chong rules “would not apply for the 42nd Parliament.”

He said that should lay to rest the matter.

“Given the fact that the Liberal caucus did not adopt these provisions, the points raised by the honourable member on this issue are moot.”

He said the same goes for the question of whether the decision to expel members was made properly. “I would contend that given the Liberal caucus decided that the provisions in the Parliament of Canada Act would not apply for the 42nd Parliament and sent the Speaker a letter to confirm this, there is no confusion around which rules apply.”

Under parliamentary procedures, the Speaker must rule on Ms. Philpott’s request.

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Rob Walsh, a former law clerk with the House of Commons, said the Speaker doesn’t have power to interpret statutes, and has no jurisdiction to intercede with regard to the internal affairs of a caucus.

“It’s an internal matter to the caucus and the rules of the House do not give the Speaker any jurisdiction with regard to the business of caucus,” Mr. Walsh said.

Ms. Philpott and Ms. Wilson-Raybould were among the new wave of Liberal recruits in the 2015 election campaign, and Mr. Trudeau has portrayed them as emblematic of the change he would bring to government.

Both resigned from cabinet in March after revelations in The Globe and Mail that Mr. Trudeau and top officials put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould when she was attorney-general to abandon the bribery and fraud prosecution of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.

The Liberals have tried to end the controversy over the matter, which triggered the resignations of the two ministers and senior Trudeau aide Gerald Butts and the retirement of top federal bureaucrat Michael Wernick.

In recent weeks, the Liberal majority has scuttled a House of Commons justice committee inquiry into the SNC-Lavalin affair and blocked the House ethics committee from investigating.

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Ms. Philpott said the rules for caucus expulsions would have required at least 90 Liberal MPs to vote by secret ballot in favour of ejecting her and Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

“Members of Parliament are not accountable to the leader; the leader is accountable to members of Parliament. This is a constitutional convention. I cannot adequately underscore how important this part of the confidence convention is,” Ms. Philpott said.

The NDP said its caucus voted against the Chong rules at the beginning of the Parliamentary session. “Caucus voted down the provisions,” spokesperson Melanie Richer said. “They weren’t implemented by the NDP.”

NDP MP Brian Masse said while caucus meetings are confidential, the caucus “fulfilled the requirements of the [Chong] act” and the results were sent to the Commons Speaker.

The Conservatives said they voted to adopt some of the Chong rules. "We voted to allow MPs to elect/reject caucus chair and expel/readmit MPs from caucus,” spokesman Brock Harrison said. “We voted against having 20 per cent of caucus trigger a secret ballot leadership review and having only MPs pick [an interim leader].”

Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in a statement on Tuesday that she backs Ms. Philpott. “It is important for members to know the rules that must be followed to expel or re-admit a member from the Liberal caucus. Further, I support the effort to ensure the law is respected and rule of law upheld.”

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