Canada’s Cultish Politics Turn Problems Into Crises
Trudeau’s bumbling autocracy is just the latest example of lockstep partisanship.
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.
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.
“The trust that previously existed between these two individuals and our team has been broken,” the prime minister said. “Whether it’s taping conversations without consent or repeatedly expressing a lack of confidence in our government and in me personally as leader, it’s become clear that Ms. Wilson Raybould and Dr. Philpott can no longer remain part of our Liberal team.”
The partisans were satisfied—this was all in the name of caucus unity, they said—but others wondered what, actually, were their crimes? Wilson-Raybould taped a call to protect herself from an ongoing campaign to twist her arm. (In Canada, one-party consent for recordings is the law.) Philpott called out, accurately, the inept handling of the affair.
Trudeau tried to spin the damage with a straight face. An organization of young female leaders assembled in the House of Commons itself, temporarily taking the seats of the House’s 338 MPs, watched as Trudeau tried to frame his decision in faux feminist terms.
As he addressed the room, dozens of women stood and turned their backs to the prime minister.
The whole thing is a fascinating case study of Canada’s cultlike devotion to its dear leader. Nowhere is it more evident than in the voting record of Canada’s elected MPs.
Analysis done over the years has found Canadian parties tend to vote in unison—meaning strictly across party lines, with not a single member expressing a difference of opinion—upwards of three-quarters of the time. Individual members tend to vote with their party with 99 percent consistency.
The lockstep has gotten worse in recent years. In the first two years of its mandate, according to analysis by the CBC, the entire Liberal caucus voted the same way 79 percent of the time. The other two parties were even worse. And even when votes don’t break down strictly by party lines, it is mostly thanks to a small group of mavericks. Most MPs in the House have voted the exact same way as their leader on every single vote since taking office.
When Liberal MP Wayne Long voted against his government’s planned business tax reform package, he was stripped of two committee assignments—perks for backbenchers who, otherwise, have very little say in crafting or amending legislation.
The entire point of the House of Commons is supposed to be members representing their home constituencies, instead of serving as proxies for their boss.
Yet Philpott and Wilson-Raybould are cautionary tales for any member daring to stray too far from party orthodoxy. Despite being sent to Ottawa by voters as Liberals, the prime minister ultimately concluded that they couldn’t sit at the cool kids table.
This kind of parliamentary rigidity is surprisingly uncommon among major democracies. Research consistently shows that it is very uncommon for parties to stay united as often as they do in Canada.
In the United Kingdom, half the votes in any given Parliament involve MPs breaking ranks with their caucus mates—and not just on the endless stream of Brexit-related proposals.
When researchers analyzed the 17th Bundestag in Germany, publishing their findings in Parliamentary Affairs, they found that the vast majority of legislators deviated from their party line, with the average member voting independent four times over four years. Hardly a bastion of rebellion, but better than Canada.
In those countries that have similar party unity to Canada, there are other levers afforded to MPs. Votes in the Australian lower house follow party lines nearly to a fault, apart from conscious votes—generally, matters of life and death or morality that parties opt not to whip—but MPs down under also have significantly more power to, among other things, oust their leader. And they use it—Australia has had five prime ministers in eight years.
But, generally speaking, you would be hard-pressed to point to a major democracy where individual legislators have as little power and exercise as little autonomy as in Canada.
The firing of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott is symbolic of the gross power imbalance where almost all authority falls into the hands of the leader. It is, in large part, because both women represented a possible hit for the Liberals’ poll numbers. But, more than that, they represented a danger for the incredibly thick cohesion of Trudeau’s caucus.
Writing about the Prussian military, the historian Norman Davies once observed that “[t]he body language of the goose-step transmitted a clear set of messages. To Prussia’s generals, it said that the discipline and athleticism of their men would withstand all orders, no matter how painful or ludicrous.”
That’s how Canada’s caucuses work. Marching, feet flying in the air, just to showcase their obedience.
Concern over this level of group think isn’t new. In 2006, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper pledged to make more votes in the House “free votes”—unshackling MPs to vote however they see fit. Over his near-decade as prime minister, centralization into his office reached new heights. Most notably, one longtime Conservative split with his party in protest of the pressure he faced within his own party to toe the line. As an independent, he stayed true to his conservative bona fides but voted different than his former party about one-third of the time.
When Trudeau ran against Harper in 2015, he, too, pledged that he would promote his MPs independence by “limiting the circumstances in which Liberal Members of Parliament will be required to vote with Cabinet.” The only exceptions would be on matters of human rights, money bills, and issues found within the party’s electoral manifesto. It would empower his diverse and capable team, he said.
Trudeau has only continued Harper’s trend of rallying the troops around himself.
Checking that power is a tall order. There is no mechanism for MPs to unseat the leader, as there is in Australia. Even if Trudeau’s MPs sided with the two ex-ministers, they would have little recourse to really do much about it at all, let alone to push Trudeau out of the job. Not even his party members can remove him from the job—only the card-carrying partisans in the third-place New Democratic Party can wield that power consistently.
It can lead to a healthy amount of cynicism that anything is ever going to change in Canada. Indeed, it can be hard to loosen a leader’s grip on power.
The best hope for reform may come from the outskirts of Parliament, where Philpott and Wilson-Raybould now find themselves.
The section for independents and small parties is in the furthest reaches of the opposition benches, about as far as you can get from where the cabinet sits in the House of Commons. But it has swelled larger and larger as this Parliament has dragged on.
The independent corner is something of a rogue’s gallery. Sitting with Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are four MPs who have been embroiled in either sex or harassment scandals; one former Liberal MP who racked up more than a million dollars in gambling debt; a former deputy to the prime minister himself who resigned after being yelled at by Trudeau himself; a former top-tier Conservative who quit to form a right-wing, anti-immigration nationalist party; 10 members of the Quebec separatist Bloc Québécois; and a lone member of the Green Party.
While, in other countries, that rump would still wield some power, in Canada, its ability to sway votes or even amend legislation is severely curtailed. For those independents and members of small parties to have any sway, they would need to hold the balance of power in a minority, or hung, Parliament.
But Trudeau’s disquieting use of his own considerable power may have many wondering just how genuine his pledges of reform really were—and whether the axiom of nines-hiring-tens was more signalling than intent. Especially given three of those independents are women who were pushed out of his caucus.
In the end, the increasingly insular and controlled reality of Canada’s political system may hasten the system’s demise. Public fatigue with the message control and rally-around-the-leader mentality could yet push voters into the arms of a more diverse cast of politicians and malcontents. The Greens, separatists, nationalists, and independents could yet be the big winners—or the unholy cult of the prime minister could be set forever.