Excessive PMO control of caucus not serving Canada well

By Robert Presser on June 5, 2019

Brexit, impeachment and obstruction of justice dominate the political agendas in the UK, the US and Canada. At a time when there are serious threats to international peace and stability in Asia and the Middle East, the pillars of the pan-Atlantic alliance that won two world wars and rebuilt democracy in the subsequent decades are engaged in destructive, divisive politics that threaten to permanently poison their elected institutions for decades to come. In case you didn’t figure it out, that was the US and the UK. In Canada we are suffering from a lack of transparency surrounding the SNC Lavalin prosecution for corruption coupled with the procurement scandal known as the Norman Affair. Small fry compared to May, Farage and Trump, for sure, but in Canada where suppression of caucus dissent is considered an effective management tool, the SNC and Norman dramas lead the headlines.

Parliamentary tradition in the UK has always afforded backbench MPs a great deal more latitude to speak out on issues and deviate from the positions taken by the leadership. Not outright dissent, but their remarks to the media and the public have often been used as tools to influence party policy and indeed, when in power, government decisions if they felt that they were not being given enough consideration in caucus. Cabinet solidarity, however, was sacrosanct. To break with the PM and cabinet as a minister meant that one would have to subsequently resign one’s portfolio. There are countless examples of strong-willed ministers leaving cabinet and caucus dissatisfaction rising to the point where a PM is removed from power while sitting on a parliamentary majority.

What is shocking about the current Brexit crisis is the complete disintegration of both the Conservative and Labour parties with factions splitting off into sub-groups, even cross-party alliances forming new caucuses for the Leave or Remain causes and those in favour of leaving with or without a deal with continental Europe. This, under extreme pressure of the moment, could have been foreseen. What was not expected was outright dissent around the cabinet table, with ministers recently visiting PM May at 10 Downing Street in rapid succession to express their dissatisfaction with her Brexit deal and then, rather than resigning, they criticized the PM before the media and challenged her ability to remain in post. Eventually this decay in cabinet solidarity forced May to announce her resignation in June. Britons just voted in the European parliamentary elections and overwhelmingly supported Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, ironically returning Farage to a house of assembly that Briton should no longer have been party to had the original Brexit timetable been respected. Now the Conservatives will select a new leader and the front runner is Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, ex-Foreign Secretary, and Brexit-without-a-deal proponent number one. Whatever happens, prepare for more mayhem and upheaval.

The United States is about to face a level of paralysis in Congress not seen since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s. There are divisions on two levels: between Trump and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and within the Democratic Party itself. Trump has announced that there will be no cooperation on key initiatives like infrastructure spending and immigration reform as long as the Democrats in the House are obsessed with investigating him. Nancy Pelosi is trying to manage the fractures within her own party as outspoken representatives like Ocacio-Cortez and presidential candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren call on the House to begin impeachment proceedings. Pelosi remembers that the Republicans were decimated at the mid-term elections in 1998 for relentlessly pursuing impeachment against Clinton in the House when they knew that it would not pass in the Senate. Eerily similar to the situation we know today, except the parties are reversed and a Republican is in the White House. Turn off the TV, folks, there will be little to no progress in US domestic politics before the next presidential election cycle.

In Ottawa, the SNC Lavalin scandal had its oxygen supply extinguished when the Liberal-dominated Justice Committee decided that there were no more facts to be collected and closed its hearings into the matter. The former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has yet to tell her full story, and it seems that she will not do so before the election this October. Jane Philpott, who followed parliamentary tradition and resigned from cabinet when she expressed a lack of confidence in how the situation was being managed, was expelled from the Liberal caucus along with Wilson-Raybould and they have announced that they will both run an independents in their ridings in the general election. There must be grumbling in the Liberal caucus over how Trudeau and the PMO handled the SNC file and later, the bungling of the prosecution of Vice-Admiral Norman over allegedly leaking the procurement details of a temporary naval supply ship – but the public will just never know about it. Would we not be better off if our parliamentary traditions were more British than Canadian, and Liberals were afforded more opportunity to speak and act with greater latitude when sitting on committees? I am willing to bet that Liberals on the justice committee would have voted to continue the hearings if allowed to do so, and recall witnesses for more questioning into their interpretation of events. Sadly, this will not happen – we’re Canadians, and we keep our dissent and disappointment buttoned-up inside. I’m not saying that I want our parties to blow themselves up like what’s going on in the UK, but we have not been well served by our excessive caucus control on Parliament Hill. Maybe someone will talk when they hit the hot dog circuit this summer and we will hear some independent thought in place of talking points.


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