Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to the Justice committee was remarkable. It is rare that a former cabinet minister who is still a member of a party’s caucus gives such troubling evidence about the actions of a Prime Minister and their party leader. Despite her testimony, Wilson-Raybould has stated that she wants to run for re-election as a Liberal. That Wilson-Raybould was willing to give such testimony as a member of the Liberals was refreshing. It is important to Canadian democracy that Prime Ministers are held to account when they act inappropriately. This works best if Members of Parliament are willing to raise issues with respect to the inappropriate actions of their own party, and if doing so does not come with the expectation that they leave their party.
MPs’ roles in parliament are complicated. On one hand they are representatives of constituencies tasked with pushing for legislation that fits their constituents’ interests and holding the executive (cabinet including the Prime Minister) to account for their actions. On the other, they are members of a party. As such, they are part of a team that runs for election on the promise that they will pass and implement the policies included in their party platform. Even as members of that team MPs sometimes have conflicting interests. On one hand they have to respect the extent to which the party leader has to broker compromises between competing interests within the party, ensuring that the party can present and, if elected, implement a coherent policy platform. On the other, as prominent members of the party, they have a duty to ensure that the party is more than just a personality cult that serves the leader. They ought to make sure that a particular leader’s ambition does not harm the party’s brand and long-term viability.
Too often the balance in Canadian democracy is struck in such a way that concentrates power in the party leader. MPs from the government end up hesitating to hold the Prime Minister to account because the Prime Minister decides whether they will get appointed to cabinet or to choice House of Commons committees. As both the public and parties increasingly expect higher levels of loyalty from their MPs, any indication of dissent leads to the expectation that an MP will be expelled from the party and forced either to run as independent or to join an opposing party. This increasingly undermines the ability of MPs to push back against the leader when the leader is acting inappropriately. Not only does this party discipline keep MPs from serving their role in parliament keeping the cabinet to account, but they also lose the ability to prevent a leader from pursuing ambition at the expense of what is good for the party. The leader’s interests get conflated with the party’s interests and party’s ideological and policy foundation are replaced with individual ambitions. If Louis the XIV could say: “l’étate, c’est moi” (I am the state), Canadian party leaders can increasingly say “le parti, c’est moi” (I am the party).
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony to the justice committee pushes back against too much Prime Ministerial power in two important ways. First, she demonstrated that as an MP she had the ability to raise serious concerns about the Prime Minister’s action even when raising those concerns caused problems for her party leader. As a result, she gave both parliament and the public important information about inappropriate actions taken by the Prime Minister. Second, she did this while remaining a Liberal party MP, and hopefully will be able to run for re-election as a Liberal. This second part is important because it suggests that Wilson-Raybould can reject the inappropriate actions of her party leader while still accepting the broader ideological and policy commitments made by the Liberals. Wilson-Raybould’s continued presence in the Liberal party suggests that the party is more than just the interests of Justin Trudeau. The party’s ideals can have an importance that goes beyond the immediate interests of the party leader, and one can remain committed to those ideals even if one rejects some of the actions taken by the leader.
One can find examples of parties asserting power in Westminster parliamentary systems outside of Canada. In Australia, MPs have the power to remove their leader, and they often exercise this power. While this may lead Australia to go through Prime Ministers at an almost comical rate, it also makes very clear that the interests of the leader are subservient to the interests of the party. Whenever MPs feel that a leader is not serving the party’s interests, they find someone else to do the job. In Britain, the large number of MPs that have no chance of getting into cabinet (Britain has 650 MPs 23 cabinet members including the Prime Minister and leader in the House of Lords) coupled with the inability of leaders to boot members from their parties allows backbench MPs fairly broad leeway to push back against a Prime Minister that acts against their interests. One can accuse Theresa May of a lot of things, but having the ability to bully dissident backbench MPs into submission is certainly not one of them. While this has led to a fractious parliament, it has also led to a parliament where MPs’ divided views over Brexit are more less reflective of the fact that there is a great deal of division in the British public over the issue. As Prime Minister, May has to grapple with those divisions instead of simply pushing through the version of Brexit she likes best.
From time to time Canadian Prime Ministers are described as “elected dictators” because of the amount of pressure they are able to exert over MPs from their party. This means that when a Prime Minister has a majority government, they have an ability to enact their policy agendas and avoid scrutiny that goes beyond that of their counterparts in Australia and Britain. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony on the SNC Lavalin affair and her continued presence within the Liberal party pushes back against this Prime Ministerial control. She should be lauded for her role in proving the House of Commons justice committee with some of the information they need to hold the Prime Minister to account for his actions in the affair. She should not be expected to leave the Liberal party. Her continued presence in the party demonstrates that one can take issue with Trudeau while still believing in the broad issues and policy platform that the party stands for.