The sign behind the former justice minister wasn’t her new election-ballot status, it was her slogan: Jody Wilson-Raybould, INDEPENDENT.
Her claim to national fame is standing up to Justin Trudeau and his PMO over the SNC-Lavalin affair, and on Monday she was telling the country she is out to “transform our political culture,” as a less-partisan MP who won’t be “dictated” to by unelected staffers.
She wasn’t announcing an independent campaign. Neither was her former cabinet colleague Jane Philpott. They were launching an independence campaign.
Both former ministers called on more independents to run for office, to build a kind of non-partisan movement; they spoke of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May as a “natural ally,” but promised to work with members of all parties to try to reduce hyperpartisanship.
Some of their un-manifesto, such as Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s suggestion that political parties might wither away to be replaced by a parliament of consensus-builders, is almost certainly doomed. And they’ll be lucky to hold on to their seats.
But Mr. Trudeau should still be worried.
Their whole campaign is a rebuke of his governing style. They talked about the need to do politics differently, just as Mr. Trudeau did in 2015 – but this time it is the Liberal Leader who represents the status quo they hope to change. He is their symbol of old-school politics and centralized power.
As an independent MP, Ms. Philpott told supporters in Markham, Ont., “there is no longer a political party telling me what to say, there is no longer a political staffer telling me how to vote, there are no longer corporate lobbyists influencing the direction I would go.”
The two former Liberal ministers said they will appeal to Canadians who think politics has become too hyperpartisan, focused more on beating opponents than solving problems. There’s certainly a lot of people who want to hear that. A lot of them are probably the people who responded four years ago when Mr. Trudeau promised to replace Stephen Harper’s partisanship with sunny ways.
Maybe Mr. Trudeau will count himself lucky that his two former ministers didn’t jump to the Greens, where they might have added fuel to that party’s perceived momentum.
But the Prime Minister’s biggest electoral problem in 2019 isn’t the Greens. It’s that he has lost so much of that connection with voters that he had in the optimistic hope-and-hard-work campaign of 2015, and he’ll need to get some of it back to win. Now two of his former ministers are running a campaign that indicts his leadership – and they’re not running as floor-crossers, but as, in Ms. Philpott’s words, “independent voices that aren’t afraid of anybody.”
Still, their independent campaign is an unlikely revolution.
It’s hard to win a seat as an independent in Canada. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has national name recognition that might help in her Vancouver-Granville riding. But Ms. Philpott’s riding is one that the Liberals and Conservatives will both hope to win, and she might well be squeezed out by a race between the candidates of the big parties.
It’s even harder to stay in office as an independent, and have an impact. In minority parliaments, independents can have outsized influence. When there is a majority, they are usually forgotten.
More fundamentally, Canadians aren’t crying out for a large, loose coalition of independents.
If Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott could actually influence MPs to take some of the power from the executive and reduce combative, partisan sloganeering, they’d deserve a statue. But the key to that is getting MPs in political parties to be more independent-minded.
In fact, political parties serve a pretty useful function for voters. They have electoral platforms that tell voters the basics of what they stand for; leaders, so voters know who would make the biggest decisions. And leaders can be blamed when they don’t deliver what they promise.
Voters want an idea of what their vote is supposed to bring to the country. That’s why we know the names of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott – they came to office in a Liberal wave in 2015 when a plurality of voters decided they wanted a change of government.
Canadians might want more independence in their politicians, but there hasn’t been a groundswell for more independents. Don’t bet on that being the political wave of the decade. But in this election year, it should make Mr. Trudeau nervous.