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Liberals' comfort level with ex-ministers in caucus to be tested in vote

OTTAWA — Liberal MPs say they’re comfortable with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott remaining in the governing party’s caucus even if the former cabinet ministers say they’ve lost confidence in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But that comfort will be put to the test Wednesday evening, when MPs vote on a Conservative motion calling on Trudeau to let Wilson-Raybould testify more fully about her allegation that she was improperly pressured to drop a criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

The former attorney general has already testified for nearly four hours before the House of Commons justice committee; Trudeau waived solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality to allow her to speak freely about events last fall up to Jan. 14, when she was shuffled out of the prestigious justice portfolio into Veterans Affairs.

The Conservative motion calls on Trudeau to extend the waiver of cabinet confidentiality, so that Wilson-Raybould can talk about what happened after Jan. 14, until her decision to resign from cabinet a month later.

A month ago, when the Commons voted on another opposition motion to let the former minister testify freely, Wilson-Raybould abstained but then added fuel to the SNC-Lavalin fire by saying: “I understand fully that Canadians want to know the truth and want transparency; privilege and confidentiality are not mine to waive and I hope that I have the opportunity to speak my truth.”

Liberals are nervously waiting to see whether Wilson-Raybould brings another can of gas to Wednesday’s vote.

She has already told the justice committee that she has more to say about the period after the shuffle but is bound by cabinet confidentiality.

Liberals are also waiting to see how Philpott votes on the Tory motion. She resigned from cabinet early this month in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould, saying she’d lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file.

Both former ministers remain members of the Liberal caucus and intend to seek re-election this fall as Liberals. Wilson-Raybould showed up for part of a closed-door Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday morning but Philpott did not attend.

Liberal MPs, including Trudeau, professed to be perfectly comfortable with the ex-ministers staying in the family.

“They’ve both indicated that they continue to believe in the Liberal party and want to stand for us in the election in the fall. I look forward to continuing to work together,” said Trudeau.

“Well, you know, sometimes there are differences of opinion but we’re a big tent,” said Liberal caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia, a Quebec MP.

However, it remains to be seen if the tent is big enough to accommodate the pair if they keep the controversy roiling. The Liberals are trying to shift attention to more election-friendly things like Tuesday’s budget.

Opposition parties are in no hurry to change the channel. With the Conservative motion expected to be defeated, the Tories have set the stage for a protest — an all-night filibuster requiring 257 votes on line items in the government’s spending estimates. The voting could theoretically last almost 45 hours, but the Conservatives have only to keep it going until just after 10 a.m. Thursday to scrub the remainder of the parliamentary day.

The Conservatives also asked the Commons ethics committee to investigate the SNC-Lavalin affair, including calling Wilson-Raybould and senior Prime Minister’s Office staff to testify.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press