There is no formal mechanism to confront Trudeau in a leadership review — even if MPs want one
Last week, Liberal MP Ken McDonald hit back at comments suggesting he wanted to see the Liberal Party consider a review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership.
But while many Liberal MPs want such a review, there is no formal way to do it — not while Trudeau is prime minister.
The Liberal Party has no leadership review mechanism built into its constitution. It allows for “leadership endorsement” ballots, which allow registered Liberals to vote on whether they still support the current leader.
An endorsement ballot is cast by each riding association and each riding is weighted equally, with 100 points. A leader needs 50 percent of the nation’s points to advance.
But such a vote can only happen after the party loses a general election. The Conservative Party Constitution similarly states that a leadership vote should only take place if the current leader has been defeated in the previous election.
Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said forcing a leader before they lose an election is simply not part of Canada’s “political culture.”
“When an entire party elects you, it’s very difficult for the majority party to come together to say they don’t want you anymore,” he said. “There is no formal mechanism for that unless someone loses an election.”
Andrew Steele, vice president of Strategy Corp and a former Liberal campaign strategist, said the party should amend its constitution 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 take place “immediately before the election.”
“[It] It’s basically a suicidal time to try to do that stuff,” he said.
Turnbull and Steele said parties in other parliamentary systems were more open to removing their leaders in the middle of a mandate.
the UK Conservative Party went through a succession of short-term leaders over the past decade – Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Theresa May – all of whom became prime ministers before the public had a chance to weigh in.
The Australian Labor party changed leaders twice while in power, from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard and then back to Rudd in for three years.
Steele said caucuses in parliaments often have more power than party leadership.
“Caucus should play a role, but in Canada it’s very weak and it’s one of the best persuasions,” he said.
Turnbull agreed. “For us, the expectation is unity around the leader,” he said.
The Reform Act means giving more power to the caucus
In 2015, Parliament adopted legislation aimed at making party leaders more accountable to their caucus members.
The Reform Act – introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong – allows MPs to review and remove their party leader. Under the law, if 20 percent of a caucus signs a petition calling for a leadership review, a vote is triggered. If the majority of MPs vote against the leader, they will be forced to step down.
But the Reform Act says parties must vote on whether to adopt any of its measures after each general election. The Conservative Party was the only one to do this; the party used the Reform Act to Erin O’Toole will be fired from leadership in 2022.
Turnbull said if the Liberals chose to adopt the leadership review mechanism into action after they won the 2021 election, it could be sending the wrong signal.
“If the Liberals won the election and they still want to review the leader, it looks a bit confusing,” he said.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where a party is asking to act as a backup plan.”
Steele suggested the Liberals would also be reluctant to have a mechanism to oust a leader chosen by party chiefs.
“There may also be 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 grassroots Liberals, even if the Liberals are losing support in the polls.
“Party leaders have not lost their confidence in Trudeau, nor do they have an exciting alternative,” he said.
When asked about McDonald’s initial comments last week, several Liberal MPs said it was ultimately up to Trudeau to decide if he wanted to run again.
“It really comes down to his choice. If he thinks he has the strength and ability to continue, I think he deserves the right to make that choice,” said MP Kody Blois.
“He won three consecutive elections. Government decisions wear down governments over time. This happens to all governments. But if he is ready for another go, ready he’s for another go,” said Ontario MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
Trudeau made it clear that he was seeks to remain as a leader. Turnbull said it would take more than a backbencher’s comment to get him to reconsider.
“Even if they have a mechanism at their disposal, the fact that there is grumbling doesn’t mean he can’t be a leader. It just means there are people grumbling,” he said.
“I think there has to be a significant, coordinated, organized fraction of the party willing to put something on the line for this.”