As the U.K. Parliament eats itself in tortured indecision around Brexit, it might seem that Westminster systems work best when there’s not too much freedom. As vote after vote unfolded, not even the few Liberal Democrats could get themselves in unison for the vote, let alone Theresa May’s tortured Conservatives.
But, across the pond in Canada, the limits of lockstep parliaments were on full display. Wielding his extraordinary power as leader of the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unceremoniously fired two members of his caucus, both former cabinet ministers, and ripped up their candidacy papers.
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The two women he fired, former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould and ex-Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, now symbolize the pitfalls of Canada’s intensely partisan Parliament. What’s more, they represent a political bear trap for the prime minister as he heads into the next election.
The whole ordeal is a cautionary tale for those looking for a democratic flavor that is a bit more all for one and one for all.
As I wrote in Foreign Policy in March, the Canadian prime minister has taken a homegrown Libyan bribery case and turned it into a full-blown crisis of confidence in his leadership. Since then, Trudeau’s fumbling has gotten only more bumbling.
In short, the prime minister leaned on then-Attorney General Wilson-Raybould to offer a deferred prosecution agreement—a plea bargain for businesses—to SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering giant, after the company was charged with fraud over its operations in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya. When she refused, siding with prosecutors in so doing, Trudeau wouldn’t take no for an answer. He, along with others in government, kept up the pressure for months. She was, finally, shuffled out of her job in January. When the scandal became public, Wilson-Raybould resigned her new cabinet post and, ultimately, testified before the House of Commons. As the scandal enveloped the government, and Trudeau aggressively pushed back at suggestions of wrongdoing, Philpott resigned her cabinet post, suggesting she had lost confidence in Trudeau’s ability to handle the affair.
The two women were gone from cabinet—replaced by other capable women—but not out of the Liberal Party caucus. They were, at least in theory, still team players.
Even amid the calamity, Philpott and Wilson-Raybould were still symbolic of Trudeau’s government, which lauded itself for doing things different. Philpott, a political neophyte, had presided over her government’s plan to legalize marijuana and physician-assisted suicide; improved service delivery for indigenous communities; and had most recently been set to take on a governmentwide digitization program. Wilson-Raybould, a first-time member of Parliament and Canada’s first-ever indigenous justice minister, had her share of wins and losses in her stint as attorney general but had notably prepared new directives to end the mass incarceration of indigenous peoples.
The two were also strong additions to Canada’s first ever gender-balanced cabinet, something Trudeau trumpeted loudly at the time. Trudeau’s former right-hand-man used to say that, in management, fives hire fours, “but nines hire tens.” That maxim became a sort of written rule for Trudeau’s governance style. WIlson-Raybould and Philpott were 10s.
But now, on the outs from the cabinet, the 10s became seen as political liabilities. Philpott gave an interview in which she strongly suggested she had lost confidence in her government’s handling of the matter. And, for a parliamentary study of the affair, Wilson-Raybould submitted an audio recording of a conversation between herself and the head of the civil service—one that largely backs up her claim that she had been subject to a pressure campaign by the government.
Liberal partisans floated the idea that both women had to go, not just from their jobs but from the party. As the idea proliferated online and on TV, MPs stepped forward to say they would vote to expel the two troublesome women. On the day the vote of expulsion was expected to take place, Trudeau met briefly with both women before walking into the caucus room to face his party.