Trudeau’s tough lesson in caucus discipline

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 7, 2019.

As the clock ticked past 50 days of the SNC-Lavalin omnishambles, the endgame finally came into focus when Jody Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Jane Philpott were ejected from the Liberal caucus on Tuesday. With the federal election not just on the horizon but looking like it will be much more closely contested than previously anticipated, it had become impossible for the two MPs to remain.

Since the earliest days of this scandal, almost every observer has agreed that this was the saga’s inevitable conclusion. The only inexplicable part was why on Earth it took so long for the prime minister to figure out what everyone else seemed to know.

So now the dangerous dissenters and the distraction they posed have been purged and Team Trudeau surely hopes to take this opportunity to finally move on. And as they do, Liberal MPs will reassure themselves that caucus is the stronger for having expelled the non-believers, for having, in Sheila Copps’ memorable formulation, “lanced the boil.”

Politics — at the provincial and federal levels, at least — is a team sport, and these last few weeks have been a test of Trudeau’s mettle as captain.

To extend the sports analogy further, the caucus room is the political version of a locker-room complete with competitive spirit and interlinked fates. It is a place where, to work well, individuals and individual interests must be subordinated to those of the team. But it is also a fragile place that can quickly come apart if individuals decide they are better off on their own than they are together.

Never mind Prime Minister Trudeau’s declaration on Canada Day in 2017 that, “We are strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them.” As one reporter quipped on Twitter, perhaps the more accurate declaration would be, “We are stronger not in spite of our differences, but because we extinguish them.”

And as much as leaders want to try new and different ways of working, it remains crystal-clear that to play for the Liberal team requires a political catechism: Belief in the party, belief in the platform, and belief in the leader.

And that’s why caucus management, or more bluntly put, the care of feeding of the caucus, is such an essential art.

Over the course of our Confederation, there have been as many approaches to caucus management as there have been caucus leaders.

Sir John A. Macdonald signed into a guest book in Charlottetown as “Cabinet Maker” and with his wife, Agnes, hosted weekly dinner parties for his caucus members.

Brian Mulroney famously stayed close to not only his caucus colleagues but their concerns as well. He remembered the names of wives and the birthdays of children and maintained the Macdonald tradition of having members over for dinner.

Others, like Stephen Harper, took a more professional, if somewhat distant, approach that earned respect by dint of hard work and self discipline.

But despite the differences in leadership styles, one of the fundamental factors that has changed the way leaders relate to their caucuses lies in the way leaders themselves are chosen.

Until 1919, that was the job of the caucus.

That year, Mackenzie King was elected leader at a Liberal Party convention. And with that, Canada began to move away from that model.

In the long run, this meant leaders like Trudeau no longer had to be as deeply attentive to the concerns of their MPs. But, with more and more grumbling by caucus members about the lack of attention they have received from the prime minister, the pendulum may have swung too far.

Now that Trudeau has presumably accepted that caucus management must henceforth be a significant part of his job, the next question is whose management style he might draw from. The Mulroney approach might seem the closest approximation to Sunny Ways; Chretien and Martin, who managed to avoid a public caucus revolt, even amidst a pitched civil war, may too have lessons to absorb.

The prime minister may yet fashion his own approach. He would do well to ensure that between now and the election, his remaining caucus members profess devotion to party, to platform, and to him, the leader.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

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