After Team Trudeau loses three votes on the same night, Liberals boast it’s ‘a strong day for democracy’
OTTAWA — In the House of Commons, a newly muscular Liberal backbench had just voted against the wishes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not once, but twice in the same night.
Meanwhile, in a reception hall in Montreal, grassroots Liberals were overruling the wishes of the party brass by refusing to nominate Trudeau’s preferred pick to be the candidate in a byelection to replace Stéphane Dion.
Was a caucus revolt underway? Were the grassroots rebelling against Trudeau and his “sunny ways” approach to politics?
“All in all a strong day for democracy in Canada. In Parliament and on the ground,” wrote one of Trudeau’s closest confidants, Gerald Butts, on Twitter. “Promises kept.”
Indeed, in on-the-record interviews at the end of the week with several Liberals, there was a clear message: This was a feature, not a bug. Liberals had campaigned in the past election to allow more free votes in the House of Commons, and Trudeau himself had committed to allowing the grassroots to choose local candidates rather than have candidates forced on them by party HQ.
But there have been more than a few Liberals — in Parliament and on the ground — who have been grumbling privately that Trudeau, his close advisers and the party brass have not been living up to their own rhetoric.
Just a little over a week ago, in Markham, Ont., Mary Ng had won the Liberal nomination in Markham—Thornhill. Ng had quit her job in the PMO and had been parachuted into the riding over the objection of many local Liberals.
There were angry accusations that the party had rigged the process in favour of the leader’s favourite rather than the riding’s favourite.
Ng would win but in a riding of 70,000 electors, where 24,000 had voted for Team Trudeau in 2015, just 186 people showed up to vote at the nomination meeting.
Fast forward to last Wednesday in the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent, where more complaints had surfaced about the party’s heavy hand after the local mayor, Alan DeSousa, had failed to get the “green light” from the party’s secretive candidate-vetting committee.
How, Liberals in Saint-Laurent wondered, could DeSousa be good enough to be mayor of Saint-Laurent for 15 years but not good enough to be the member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent?
Everyone in the riding knew the answer: Because the party and Trudeau wanted Yolande James, a former Quebec cabinet minister, to win the seat, and a popular mayor was likely to beat James.
But when it came time to vote, James didn’t even make it past the first ballot and a 26-year-old high school teacher and political unknown named Emmanuella Lambropoulos was the choice of the 1,350 grassroots members who voted.
“It was an interesting race,” Nicola Di Iorio, a Liberal MP from Montreal, told reporters the next day. “I have to be frank with you … I was surprised at the result.”
Di Iorio had been one of the 105 Liberal backbench MPs who had stood up the night before to vote in favour of Bill S-201, which bans genetic discrimination. Those Liberals did that hours after Trudeau called the bill unconstitutional and told reporters he and his cabinet would vote against it. Trudeau even went on at length in that morning’s closed-door caucus meeting about why it was a bad bill and ought to be voted down.
“Government was putting its full weight behind it being severely gutted,” said Rob Oliphant, the Liberal MP who was S-201’s sponsor in the House of Commons.
But MPs would not buy Trudeau’s spin on the bill and voted in favour of it.
“The new reality is that Liberal backbenchers are being empowered,” Oliphant said after the vote.
Elizabeth May, the Green Party MP, agrees that Trudeau’s approach to caucus relations is much better than Stephen Harper’s. But, in May’s view, Trudeau’s PMO behaved as Harper’s PMO often did in the way it tried to kill Oliphant’s bill.
“What I want to know is, what happens next?” May said. “This was a good day for democracy. The next question for the Liberal party is: Will they choose to embrace it or do they punish the people who did the right thing?”
Anthony Housefather, a Montreal MP who voted in favour of S-201, said there were no signs or hints from the PMO that voting against the wishes of Trudeau and the cabinet would be held against him or others.
“I’ve never felt that. I think anyone who tried to punish anyone would look really bad,” Housefather said. “We have a system where members of Parliament feel empowered and not afraid to vote their conscience and their constituents’ position on issues, which I think is great.”
Housefather is also the chair of the Commons’s justice committee, a committee where Liberal MPs have the majority. It had been his committee that had reviewed S-201 and made recommendations with which Trudeau and his cabinet disagreed.
Housefather’s committee now gets to work on another bill, S-217, that the Trudeau cabinet also opposes.
That bill is known as Wynn’s Law, in honour of Dave Wynn, an RCMP constable fatally shot in 2015 inside a St. Albert, Alta., casino by an individual who had a lengthy rap sheet and who had skipped bail.
Wynn’s Law, which is sponsored by a Conservative MP, would seek to tighten bail conditions.
To get to Housefather’s justice committee, it had to clear the House of Commons and that vote was held the same night as the S-201 vote. Wynn’s Law did clear the House of Commons but by the relatively narrow margin of 154-128.
All the Conservative, NDP and BQ MPs voted for it — as did 27 rebel Liberals, Housefather among them.
That made it two votes, back to back, where Trudeau and his cabinet were on the losing end.
“I get the sense that many of the Liberal members are getting a little tired and fatigued of always having to vote for things they don’t like,” said Dan Albas, a Conservative MP from British Columbia. “I’m sure PMO is counting who stood up and who did not (but) for the Liberal MPs, it’s more of a way to express their concerns on the agenda of the government. That’s a dynamic the government has to contend with.”
National Post by David Akin
March 12th 2017