FACT CHECK: Was it Illegal for Trudeau to Unilaterally Expel Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould?
MISLEADING. Trudeau was in breach of the Parliament of Canada Act, but not when he expelled the two MPs. He broke a different, recently added subsection of the act in 2015.
In the latest chapter of the ongoing SNC-Lavalin scandal, MP Jane Philpott, formerly of the Liberals, has accused Prime Minister Trudeau of breaking the Parliament of Canada Act. As reported by the CBC, Philpott was expelled from the Liberal caucus in early April, along with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, for, according to Trudeau, “repeatedly expressing a lack of confidence” in the Liberal government and in the prime minister as its leader. In March, Philpott resigned from her cabinet position as treasury board president, citing a lack of confidence in the government due to its treatment of Wilson-Raybould.
Philpott made her accusation before the House of Commons on April 9 in the form of a question of privilege (a formal claim that the rights of an MP have been violated). In her statement, she alleged that Trudeau and his office broke subsection 49.8 of the Parliament of Canada Act, which requires each caucus to hold four recorded votes at their first meeting following a general election. One of these votes is on whether, going forward, caucus members will have to be removed by a majority vote or whether the party’s leader will reserve the authority to expel members unilaterally. In the Liberal Party’s case, the first meeting, at which the act required members to vote, was held on November 5, 2015.
While Philpott’s question of privilege was never about it being illegal for Trudeau to have expelled her and Wilson-Raybould from caucus, it has been reported that way. According to CTV News, Philpott argued that “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contravened the law that governs Parliament and impeded on MPs’ rights when he expelled her and colleague Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal caucus … without a caucus vote”—which she did not. Philpott’s argument that Trudeau violated the Parliament of Canada Act hinges not on the fact that he expelled two caucus members without a majority vote, but on the claim that his office unlawfully avoided the requisite first-meeting vote. In her question of privilege, Philpott cited a March Toronto Star article in which, asked whether his party had ever voted on Section 49, Liberal MP John McKay replied, “Nothing like that ever happens in caucus.”
That McKay’s comments seem so out of line with the laws governing members of Parliament likely has to do with how recently—and by whom—the section Trudeau is accused of breaking was added to the act. Section 49 was introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong as part of the Reform Act, which came into effect in June 2015, just three months before Trudeau’s Liberals won the general election. Chong’s reforms were designed to better balance power between party members and their leaders by giving ordinary MPs the power to vote on caucus expulsions and even on removing their party’s leader. But to NDP house leader Peter Julian, as reported by the CBC, it was “the Conservative Reform Act”—a set of amendments the Conservative Party sought for itself that didn’t apply to the NDP, whose decision-making processes Julian alleged were already more democratic than the Conservatives’. At their first meetings after the election, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen, both the NDP and the Liberals voted to defer the Section 49 vote—technically a breach of the Parliament of Canada Act. There’s no evidence that the matter was ever brought up again by either party, making Chong’s Conservative Party the only one not in violation of the reforms.
In response to Philpott’s question of privilege, the Liberals argued that they did eventually send the speaker of the House of Commons a letter stating that Section 49 would not apply to them. Speaker Geoff Regan—effectively the only person who could verify this claim—concluded days after Philpott’s question of privilege that both internal caucus affairs and the enforcement of legal statutes are beyond his jurisdiction and that he is therefore unable to rule on whether or not the Parliament of Canada Act was violated. Canadian courts have likewise ruled repeatedly in the past, according to the National Post, that they do not have jurisdiction over issues of parliamentary administration.
Considering the speaker’s ruling, the only group of people left that could formally hold Trudeau accountable for breaking the law is the Liberal caucus itself. To date, no Liberal MP has spoken out in support of Philpott’s question of privilege. Nor has anyone—including Philpott—disputed that Trudeau’s expulsion decision, while technically unilateral, was made with the majority consensus of his party.