Take off the kid gloves, prime minister

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Sunny days are here again. But they are not going to last long if Justin Trudeau doesn’t get some experienced advice on political damage control.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 11, 2019.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally came out of the bushes to respond to a month-long barrage of accusations, communication and misunderstanding were at the root of the prime minister’s messaging. It was the repeat of the kid-gloves treatment he used when dealing with the initial resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott.

They are both still sitting in the Liberal caucus. The public line is that this misunderstanding has been papered over and they will all work together as Liberals.

Sunny days are here again. But they are not going to last long if Trudeau doesn’t get some experienced advice on political damage control.

The month-long train wreck facing the government was entirely of its own making. The leak to The Globe and Mail did not come from the opposition. It came from within the cabinet.

Just when we thought that those fires were dying out, Philpott fanned the flames by quitting cabinet to join her colleague and friend in the caucus backbenches.

Wilson-Raybould continues to insist that she is under some sort of gag order, which prevents her from speaking. Nonsense. As Member of Parliament, she has 24-hour access to the press gallery, so all she has to do is call a press conference, and speak her truth. Any conversations she had outside the cabinet meetings themselves are not covered by privilege, and that includes personal discussions with the prime minister or cabinet colleagues.

We also learned last week of the former minister’s surprising refusal to take over important work in the ministry of Indigenous Services.

Some media observers claimed that asking her to take that position was akin to asking Nelson Mandela to work on apartheid.

Mandela did exactly that. He took over a country with the specific mandate to dismantle apartheid and he went so far as to invite his own jailer to his nomination.

Mandela moved quickly on reconciliation, understanding that his people would only succeed if all parties were healed.

As Indigenous Services minister, Wilson-Raybould would have been perfectly positioned to help dismantle the system against which she has fought her whole life. She would have been empowered to change the lives of all Indigenous citizens. That refusal was inconsistent with her commitment to change Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Accepting that portfolio would have been a challenge, because the route to reconciliation is a long one and unlikely to be completed in advance of the next election. But she could have had a hand in getting rid of the department. She would have had a mandate from the prime minister to work with the Crown-Indigenous relations minister on self-government agreements and divestiture.

Having refused, she was offered and accepted a position as minister of veterans affairs.

After she quit, Wilson-Raybould spent three weeks controlling the agenda, assisted by leaks from inside the cabinet. When her story started losing lustre, friend and former minister Philpott quit.

Philpott penned an elegant public elegy that she had lost confidence in government, without even waiting to hear the other side of the story, as Gerald Butts had not yet appeared before the Justice Committee.

A political newbie, she had a stellar lifetime of public service but little experience in the reality of political backrooms. That may be why she seems to see nothing inconsistent in losing confidence in the government and staying in the government caucus.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said last week that they would not be sitting in his caucus. I agree.

Unlike the party, where they would be welcomed to work for a leadership review to get rid of the prime minister, the caucus is actually part of the government.

Like cabinet, caucus is intended to be a confidential place where people can speak truth to power unfettered by any limitations. I have sat in caucus where members accused a prime minister of being worse than Hitler. No punches are pulled.

But the presence of these two former ministers is poisonous, as it prevents free caucus dialogue. Other caucus members may well ask the pair to leave, as the caucus has now lost confidence in them.

As leader, Trudeau has to make tough decisions that can do temporary damage.

A boil must be lanced to heal.