Trudeau and Liberal Party Expel 2 Ex-Ministers at Center of Storm
OTTAWA — After promising an open and collaborative way of doing politics, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Tuesday axed from his party two prominent former female cabinet ministers who have been at the center of a festering political crisis about his handling of a criminal case.
Trying to divert the country’s attention from the controversy, Mr. Trudeau was in a tough spot politically.
The two women were seen by many as symbols of his progressive feminist government. But within his Liberal Party, they were seen as untrustworthy backstabbers who kept the firestorm alive for weeks with new morsels of information feasted upon by the press and opposition parties.
The problems began two months ago when accusations surfaced that Mr. Trudeau and his aides inappropriately pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister and attorney general, to settle a criminal corruption case against SNC-Lavalin, a major corporation based in Montreal.
Since then, the standing of the Liberals has fallen in polls. And Mr. Trudeau’s image as a fresh force who practiced politics in a new and transparent way has been severely battered.
With their re-election hopes dimming less than seven months before the national vote, several Liberal members of Parliament have openly expressed frustration with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who resigned from the cabinet on Feb. 12, and with Jane Philpott, who was president of the Treasury Board, and later resigned in solidarity with her.
“It’s become clear that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott can no longer remain part of our Liberal team,” Mr. Trudeau told an emergency meeting of the Liberal members of Parliament Tuesday evening. “Our political opponents win when Liberals are divided. We cannot afford to make that mistake.”
He added, “In learning to do things and doing them differently, we’ve encountered difficult moments.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said on Facebook on Tuesday night that she will speak with her supporters about what to do next.
“I did what I was required to do and what needed to be done based on principles & values that must always transcend party,” she wrote.
In a separate Facebook message posted Monday night, Ms. Philpott expressed dismay about not being able to make her case to the national caucus before she was exiled from it.
“The need has never been greater for a measured re-evaluation of how the government should respond to this issue,” she wrote. “What I have heard from Canadians is that they want to know the truth.”
Jenny Kwan, a member of the New Democratic Party from British Columbia, said Mr. Trudeau’s action undermined his claim of being a feminist.
“This is about really speaking truth to power and the government shut it down,” she said.
But Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous Relations, tried to repair any damage, telling reporters after Mr. Trudeau spoke that the prime minister’s commitment to feminism was not a sham.
“It’s not about gender,” she said, saying that her former colleagues had to go simply because they could not be trusted.
Until Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau had studiously avoided criticizing either of his former ministers. “I’ve approached this situation with patience and understanding,” he said.
But he called last week’s revelation that Ms. Wilson-Raybould secretly recorded a conversation with the country’s top public servant “unconscionable”
The two were discussing the case against SNC-Lavalin, which has been charged with bribing Libyan officials during the dictatorship of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Mr. Trudeau’s government was asking Ms. Wilson-Raybould to consider using a new measure, similar to ones in the United States and some European countries, that would allow the company to avoid conviction in exchange for a substantial financial penalty.
A criminal conviction would have barred the company from government work, which could potentially have imperiled thousands of Canadian jobs. Mr. Trudeau and his aides have repeatedly denied any impropriety.
Ms. Philpott also angered her Liberal colleagues by saying in a magazine interview that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was being blocked by the government from revealing important information about the case.
While Mr. Trudeau made the decision to expel the two former members, a movement within the caucus to remove them began escalating over the weekend.
Wayne Easter, a former cabinet minister and veteran member of Parliament, told the Canadian Press news agency on Monday that recording the call without the knowledge of Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council, was “as low as you can go.”
He added: “Jody Wilson-Raybould? Should be gone. Gone. Should’ve been gone long ago.”
While neither woman found many allies within their party, they have been celebrated by opposition members of Parliament for their actions.
In a statement, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, said their expulsion showed that “if you tell the truth, there is no room for you in the Liberal Party.”
The Conservatives are filibustering debate on Mr. Trudeau’s budget legislation in a bid to force a public inquiry into the matter.
Hours before she was removed from the Liberal caucus, Ms. Wilson-Raybould urged her colleagues, in an unapologetic letter, to allow her to remain in the party.
“Now I know many of you are angry, hurt and frustrated,” she wrote. “And frankly so am I. I am angry, hurt and frustrated because I feel I was upholding the values that we all committed to.”
In her statement on Monday evening, Ms. Philpott dismissed the criticisms of several of her former colleagues.
“I was accused publicly by people in caucus of not being loyal, of trying to bring down the prime minister, of being politically motivated, and of being motivated by my friendship with Jody Wilson-Raybould,” Ms. Philpott wrote. “These attacks were based on inaccuracies and falsehoods. I did not initiate the crisis now facing the party or the prime minister. Nor did Jody Wilson-Raybould.”
The two former cabinet ministers will not be allowed to seek re-election under the Liberal Party banner in October’s election and are likely to face Liberal opponents in their electoral districts if they choose to run for re-election.
Unless they join one of the opposition parties, they will also not have access to party financial, logistical and polling resources.
Both were political neophytes during the last election, in 2015. Ms. Philpott is a doctor and Ms. Raybould-Wilson a lawyer who was also an Indigenous leader in British Columbia. Neither has a well-developed, personal political machine.
Mr. Trudeau’s efforts to turn political attention away from the case have so far faltered.
On Tuesday, he ended his announcement with a campaign-style speech in which, among other things, he highlighted the government’s efforts to mitigate climate change and attacked the Conservatives’ plan to kill carbon taxes.