How much longer will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau allow Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott to remain in the federal Liberal caucus?
In Ottawa, that question dominates the conversation, from cocktail parties to cab rides. It started after Philpott’s extraordinary sortie in Maclean’s, where she said that “there’s much more to the story that needs to be told.”
WATCH: Philpott says there’s “much more” to the SNC-Lavalin affair
It reached a boiling point when Wilson-Raybould promised to provide “copies of text messages and emails” to the justice committee that would “further clarify statements I made and elucidate the accuracy and nature of statements by witnesses in testimony that came after my committee appearance.”
What’s next, people are asking, a tell-all on The National?
It’s almost as though the two women are daring Trudeau to expel them, daring him to repudiate his status as a champion of feminism, Indigenous rights and doing politics differently. It’s as if they’re daring him to act like any other leader — Stephen Harper, Jean Chretien or his own father, the late Pierre Trudeau — would have done and assert his authority over wayward MPs.
It’s not like Trudeau hasn’t done that before. In 2014, he took a number of decisive actions. In November of that year, when Liberal MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews were accused of sexual misconduct by two NDP MPs, Trudeau expelled them from caucus without hesitation — or any semblance of due process.
In May, Trudeau issued a fatwa against any MP or aspiring candidate who didn’t support abortion rights by denying them the opportunity to run for the party.
And in January, Trudeau expelled 32 members of the Senate from the Liberal caucus — for no other reason than that they were Liberals, and he wanted to take a stand in light of the Senate expenses scandal. Taken together, these acts burnished his feminist credentials, bolstered his “doing things differently” mantra and cast him as decisive to boot.
So why hesitate now? What is it that Trudeau fears? What do Wilson-Raybould and Philpott know — or could they say — if he cast them out of caucus? Speculation runs rampant, but some scenarios appear more plausible than others. The main one is that SNC-Lavalin wasn’t the starting point for the women’s discontent but only a convenient tipping point. The theory is that other issues — the government’s failure to settle Indigenous land claims, the lack of material advancement on First Nations issues — are really what made them mad. They may have concluded that Trudeau’s embrace of these causes was a fraud, mere virtue-signalling for votes, and they weren’t going to take it anymore.
(It is interesting to note that a spokesperson for new Attorney General David Lametti just confirmed that Wilson-Raybould’s directives on First Nations litigation will be respected — 20 guidelines that profoundly change the way the Crown will prosecute indigenous lawsuits, and which encourage settlement out of court).
Whatever their rationale, it now appears that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are mounting a full-blown coup. The longer Trudeau waits to crush it, the weaker he appears. The flurry of MPs and ministers rushing to his defence only further diminishes his stature; what kind of PM needs to be saved by his own people? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
But not everyone is on Team Trudeau. In the Tyee, Martyn Brown, former aide to B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, opined that the “fear of losing Trudeau needs to be flipped on its head if left-leaning progressives want to minimize the chances of a Scheer victory this fall. The Liberals can now only hope to regain the moral high ground that is so vital for securing the values they purport to represent by replacing their leader.”
The only other option to avoid tossing Wilson-Raybould and Philpott would be for Trudeau to call a snap election. But with the federal Tories high in the polls and having just called a byelection for Nanaimo for May 6, it appears Trudeau has taken that option off the table. An early election in late June or July might still be possible, but that would still require Trudeau to act now to staunch the bleeding.
Everything else the Liberals have tried — replacing the clerk of the Privy Council, appointing Anne MacLellan to recommend changes to party governance, putting a big-spending budget in the window — has failed to change the channel, because the PM’s own MPs keep stabbing him in the back. Unless he wants this election to become a referendum on his leadership or his own party to turn against him, Trudeau needs to cut the Gordian knot — and kick them out.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.