It’s probably safe to assume by now that the real-time legend of rookie Liberal MP Wayne Long has spread his once little-known name far beyond the borders of his New Brunswick riding.
But for those out of the loop, a quick recap: last Wednesday, Long became the first Liberal backbencher to put his discomfort with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s bid to revamp the rules governing corporate tax breaks on the official parliamentary record, by voting for a Tory-proposed motion to extend consultations on the changes until early next year.
Naturally, the motion failed — with 198 nays to 89 yeas, it wasn’t even close — and it’s unlikely that the Liberal whip was caught off-guard by Long’s decision. The MP for Saint John–Rothesay had, after all, effectively served notice of his intentions back on September 13, in a Facebook post notifying his constituents that, as a former “business entrepreneur,” he couldn’t support Morneau’s plan without amendments.
Besides, even if the motion had passed, it wouldn’t have been binding on the government, which could have simply thanked the House for its suggestion and then proceeded with its original plan — a plan that has already been adjusted so Morneau can send the draft legislation back for a rewrite in order to deal with the most frequently cited concerns he heard over the course of summer-long “listening tour.”
Yet those extenuating circumstances were apparently not extenuating enough to let Long off the hook for breaking ranks, as far as Liberal whip Pablo Rodriquez was concerned. “Difficult conversations” with Rodriguez, as Long put it to a CBC reporter, ensued, and a few days later, Long was informed that he’d be losing his seats on two House committees: human resources, and access to information and ethics.
“I am deeply disappointed to be removed from my committees, but I respect and understand the party’s decision,” he told the CBC in an email.
And while that would seem to be Long’s final comment on the matter, at least for now — and honestly, who could blame him if he were now hoping to return to obscurity? This isn’t how most rookie MPs dream of making the headlines, after all.
But even if Long isn’t prepared to question his punishment publicly, others have been happy to do so on his behalf, particularly given Team Trudeau’s oft-repeated pledge to allow Liberal MPs to vote freely, except on Charter issues, confidence questions, and platform commitments.
According to Rodriguez, the third exception applied in this case, although, as was immediately pointed out, while the Liberal campaign platform did tout the need for “tax fairness,” it was silent on how long the consultation period for changes to that end should be.
When it comes to party discipline, however, there’s no option to plead out on a technicality — and given the fates that have befallen whipped-vote-defying MPs in the past, Long could consider himself lucky not to have been thrown out of the Liberal family entirely. He gets to keep his caucus membership card and will almost certainly be put back into committee rotation, albeit after a period of penance.
That said, it would be unfortunate if the backbench ballad of Wayne Long came to serve as a cautionary tale for other Liberal MPs hoping to exercise their right to a free vote.
It would also be unfortunate if the government didn’t take this opportunity to consider that its spectacularly clumsy roll-out of the proposed tax changes created precisely the political dynamics that left Long feeling he had no choice but to vote against his own party.
There is, after all, a quid pro quo between the government of the day and the caucus that gives the governing party the votes it needs to claim the confidence of the chamber.
As the majority of MPs who make up that caucus aren’t actually in government — that status is reserved for cabinet ministers and their parliamentary secretaries — they have to be able to trust that those who are will use common sense and strategic savvy when proposing policies it will expect those MPs to defend.
It may sound self-evident, but apparently it wasn’t obvious enough to Morneau.
Either he wildly underestimated the (entirely predictable) backlash from those most likely to be directly affected by his desire to close tax loopholes — most notably, doctors, farmers, and the amorphous but highly influential small-business community — or he knew exactly how badly it would go down yet didn’t think to give MPs a heads-up that they were about to come under siege.
In neither scenario did he fulfill his most fundamental responsibility to the House caucus, which can be summed up thusly: “Try really hard to avoid doing dumb things, but if you do dumb things, don’t expect your MPs to simply stand there and soak up the outrage.” And while there’s no immediate penalty for ministers who neglect to protect the collective political well-being of the caucus, they are only as secure as their last vote of Commons confidence.
That, it seems, is something Trudeau and his team might want to keep in mind next time they’re faced with a rebellious backbencher.
Kady O’Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.
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