Even if Liberal MP Ken McDonald had stuck with his initial call for a leadership review of Justin Trudeau, there’s no formal way to make it happen.
Liberal and Conservative party constitutions only allow for a leadership vote after an election loss
Darren Major · CBC News
· Posted: Jan 29, 2024 4:00 AM EST | Last Updated: 9 hours ago
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau address his national caucus during a winter caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)Last week, Liberal MP Ken McDonald walked back comments suggesting he would like to see the Liberal Party consider a leadership review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But even if a substantial number of Liberal MPs wanted such a review, there’s no formal way to make it happen — not while Trudeau is prime minister.
The Liberal Party doesn’t have a leadership review mechanism built into its constitution. It does allow for “leadership endorsement” ballots, which allow registered Liberals to vote on whether they still support the current leader.
The endorsement ballot is conducted by each riding association and each riding is weighted equally, with 100 points. A leader needs 50 per cent of the points nationally to stay on.
But such a vote occurs only after the party loses a general election. The Conservative Party constitution similarly states that a vote on the leadership should occur only if the current leader lost the previous election.
Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said that forcing a leader out before they lose an election isn’t really part of Canadian “political culture.”
“If a whole party at large elects you, it’s very difficult for the party at large to come together to say they don’t want you anymore,” she said. “There’s no formal mechanism for that unless a person loses an election.”
Andrew Steele, a vice president with Strategy Corp and a former Liberal campaign strategist, said the party would have to amend its constitution in order to force a leadership review at the party’s next annual general meeting.
No such AGM is expected before 2025 — which means, he said, that any leadership review would have to happen “immediately before an election.”
“[It] would be basically a suicidal time to try to do that kind of thing,” he said.
Turnbull and Steele said parties in other parliamentary systems are more open to ditching their leaders in the middle of a mandate.
Liz Truss announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street, London, U.K. on October 20, 2022. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)The U.K. Conservative Party has gone through a series of short-term leaders over the past decade — Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Theresa May — all of whom became prime minister before the public had a chance to weigh in.
The Australian Labour party swapped leaders twice while in power, going from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard and then back to Rudd in the space of three years.
Steele said caucuses in those parliaments generally have more sway over the party leadership.
“Caucus needs to have some role, but in Canada it’s very weak and it’s really one of suasion at best,” he said.
Turnbull agreed. “For us, the expectation is solidarity around the leader,” she said.
Reform Act meant to give caucus more powerIn 2015, Parliament adopted legislation meant to make party leaders more accountable to their caucus members.
The Reform Act — put forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong — allows MPs to review and remove their party leader. Under the act, if 20 per cent of a caucus signs a petition calling for a leadership review, a vote is triggered. If a majority of the MPs vote against the leader, they are forced to step down.
But the Reform Act states that parties must vote on whether to adopt any of its measures after each general election. The Conservative Party is the only one that has done so; the party used the Reform Act to oust Erin O’Toole from the leadership in 2022.
Turnbull said if the Liberals had chosen to adopt the act’s leadership review mechanism after they won the 2021 election, it might have sent the wrong signal.
“If the Liberals won the election and yet they still wanted to review the leader, the look would have been a bit confusing,” she said.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where a party invokes that act just kind of as a backup plan.”
Liberal MP Ken McDonald speaks with Radio-Canada at an arena in his riding. McDonald walked back an initial suggestion that the Liberals launch a leadership review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Benoît Roussel/Radio-Canada)Steele suggested Liberals might also be adverse to having a mechanism to overthrow a leader who was elected by the party’s grassroots.
“There’s also probably an issue of who should decide. One hundred and fifty people in a closed room, or the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the Liberal Party?” he said.
Steele also suggested that Trudeau likely still enjoys strong support among grassroot Liberals, even as Liberals lose support in the polls.
“The grassroots of the party have not lost their faith in Trudeau, nor do they have an exciting alternative,” he said.
WATCH | Cabinet ministers react after MP critcizes PM:
Cabinet members react after Liberal MP criticizes PMCabinet members said they’re focused on governing after Liberal MP Ken McDonald told a reporter there was ‘almost a hatred out there’ for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and called for a review of the party’s leadership. The Newfoundland MP later clarified, saying he wasn’t calling for a leadership review and supports the prime minister.
When asked about McDonald’s initial comments last week, a number of Liberal MPs said it’s ultimately up to Trudeau to decide whether he wants to run again.
“It really comes down to his choice. If he thinks he has the energy and the ability to be able to move forward, I think he deserves the right to make that choice,” said MP Kody Blois.
“He’s won three elections in a row. Government decisions wear on governments over time. It happens to all governments. But if he’s ready for another go, he’s ready for another go,” Ontario MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said.
Trudeau has made it clear that he intends to stay on as leader. Turnbull said it would take more than one backbencher’s comments to make him reconsider.
“Even if they had the mechanism that was available to them, the fact that there’s grumbling doesn’t mean that he’s not going to be leader. It just means that there’s people who are grumbling,” she said.
“I think there would have to be a significant, coordinated, organized chunk of the party who’s willing to put something on the line for this.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.