Former cabinet minister Jane Philpott is asking the Speaker of the House of Commons to rule on whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the rights of MPs when he expelled her and Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal caucus – a move she calls a breach of federal law.
Trudeau’s decision last week to eject Philpott and Wilson-Raybould was “a breach of the Parliament of Canada Act,” the newly independent MP said Tuesday on the Commons floor, because the Liberals failed to hold a legally required caucus vote following the 2015 election that would have established how such expulsions are supposed to work.
A set of amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act, spearheaded by Conservative MP Michael Chong, was passed in 2015 in an effort to make it more difficult for MPs to be removed from caucus – part of an effort to decentralize political power on Parliament Hill and put it back in the hands of rank-and-file legislators.
Those rules require that after a federal election, the MPs of each party hold a vote to determine the rules for caucus expulsions. But in November 2015, after the Liberals formed government, they deferred the matter, and as a result the rules – which would have required 90 Liberal MPs to express support for expelling Philpott and Wilson-Raybould – were not formally adopted.
“We were expelled prior to the commencement of the Liberal caucus meeting,” Philpott told the House as she registered her complaint with Regan, a procedure known as a point of privilege.
“The prime minister’s words that night to the Liberal caucus are important to underscore, because expulsion should not be his decision to take unilaterally. However, the decision had been already made.”
Members of Parliament are not accountable to the leader but rather the leader is accountable to members of Parliament, Philpott said.
“This is a constitutional convention” – one so important that it has been codified in the Parliament of Canada Act, she added.
When later asked about Philpott’s complaint, Trudeau acknowledged that the decision to expel the pair was his alone, but one he made after consulting caucus members: “The will of caucus was very clear, but I made the decision.”
Regan told Philpott he would consider her argument and report back to the House later.
He has already ruled on a related question involving another former Liberal, Toronto-area MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who quit the Liberal caucus last month. In that ruling, the Speaker found that “asking the House to deal with the possible expulsion of a member from caucus is not a proper subject for a question of privilege” and it’s not his place to interpret the law, only the rules of the House of Commons.
Philpott said that since she and Wilson-Raybould were kicked out of caucus, and didn’t leave voluntarily, their situation is different.
Wilson-Raybould believes she was moved out of the prestigious justice portfolio to Veterans Affairs in a mid-January cabinet shuffle as punishment for refusing to intervene to stop the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on bribery charges related to contracts in Libya.
She has testified that she faced relentless pressure last fall from Trudeau, his office, the top public servant and others to override the director of public prosecutions, who had decided not to invite the Montreal engineering giant to negotiate a remediation agreement, a kind of plea bargain.
Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet in mid-February and Philpott followed a few weeks later, saying she had lost confidence in the government over its handling of the SNC-Lavalin file. But both MPs remained members of the Liberal caucus until last week.
The revelation that Wilson-Raybould had surreptitiously recorded a phone conversation with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council, to bolster her contention of undue pressure was the last straw for Liberal MPs, who openly called on Trudeau to expel the former ministers. On April 2, Trudeau called the secret recording “unconscionable,” proof that the ex-minister could no longer be trusted.
Despite the best efforts of Liberals, the months-old SNC-Lavalin controversy keeps finding its way back to the headlines.
On Sunday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer revealed that Trudeau’s lawyer had sent him a libel notice, demanding he retract his claims that the prime minister had lied to Canadians and interfered with the SNC prosecution. Scheer made clear he has no such plans.
Trudeau, asked about the legal threat, said Tuesday that with an election coming up, it’s important that politicians be discouraged from twisting the truth and distorting reality.
“You can’t be lying to Canadians,” said Trudeau. “It’s not something we’re going to put up with.”