Politics·Analysis

If they win, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott can thank the party system they now loathe

Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott launched their re-election campaigns Monday by attacking the party system that, arguably, made it possible for them to contemplate successful runs as independents in the first place.

Their profile gives them a shot they wouldn't have had if they'd run as Independents four years ago

Jody Wilson-Raybould holds a news conference to discuss her political future in Vancouver on Monday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have decided to find out how much they can accomplish on their own.

One or both might at least get re-elected — though the reward for that might be rather limited.

If they do accomplish something here, a significant amount of credit will be due to the partisan political system they now enthusiastically scorn.

"In this reality," Wilson-Raybould said on Monday, referring to the complicated world in which we find ourselves, "there is less room for overt partisanship in our evolving democracy."

As an Independent, she said, she would "be truly free to take the guidance of the citizens of Vancouver-Granville and to represent you. I will not have to try and convince myself that just because [that's] the way it has always been done means that it must continue to be done that way.

"Please don't get me wrong, I take great pride in what we have accomplished over the last four years. Many important initiatives were advanced, both locally and nationally. But I wonder what more could have been accomplished on big issues, the big issues of our time, if it was a less partisan environment."

Simultaneously announcing her own independence, Jane Philpott struck a similar note.

Jane Philpott announces she is running in the next federal election as an Independent in Markham, Ont., on Monday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"We are getting really tired of hyper-partisan politics," she said, describing the kind of feedback she's been hearing from constituents. "Can't we get beyond partisan politics? The system seems dysfunctional. It seems like all they're doing up there in Ottawa is fighting with each other and there's a disconnect. We don't feel like the people in Ottawa are connected to us, the people."

"Party politics," the former health minister concluded, "is a big part of the disconnect and the dysfunction."

Maybe such things are easier to say when you're no longer a member of a political party. Maybe you need to say such things when you're trying to frame an independent candidacy.

Strength in numbers

But it's surely worth noting that neither Wilson-Raybould nor Philpott would be in much of a position to be elected as an Independent had they not first been elected as Liberals. That they ran as Liberals in 2015, for a party led by Justin Trudeau, was perhaps the most significant factor in their election to Parliament. Through the Liberal Party and then the Liberal government, and with the support of Liberal MPs, they became ministers of the Crown and were able to advance significant legislation and influence public policy.

Partisans are easy to dislike and the democratic process is often unsightly, but political parties have their advantages. Like-minded people use parties to pool their efforts, to accomplish together what would be harder to do separately. Voters are presented with an understandable set of choices. Decisions are made, policies are enacted and, every four years or so, everyone gets a chance to reconsider.

It's tempting to wish for less combative Canadian politics — but the thought of working across the aisle inevitably runs up against the reality that not everyone agrees. It's easy to hate parties — but a House of 338 Independents would have its own set of problems. It's easy to say that party discipline is overbearing — but more than a hundred Liberal MPs still defied the government (and Wilson-Raybould) to vote for a bill on genetic discrimination in 2017.

Until things went sideways this spring, both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott had done pretty well by the party system. All things considered, both the Liberal Party and the two new Independents probably would still be better off (politically) together.

The risks of running solo

The party system is imperfect — that's no revelation, though it never hurts to kick those concerns around again. In the last Parliament, Brent Rathgeber spent a great deal of time and effort lamenting the state of things. He had been elected as a Conservative, but split with the party and wrote a book about the problems he saw.

It might have been noble work, but it only mattered so much. As a Conservative in 2011, he'd won 63.5 per cent of the vote in his Edmonton riding. Running as an Independent in 2015, he finished a distant third, with 19.7 per cent of the vote.

If anyone can run and win as Independents in 2019, it's surely Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, two women who have been offered up as the personification of truth and justice. Few Independents, if any, have ever enjoyed the public profile and goodwill that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have gained over the last few months. And they'll be objects of media fascination throughout the campaign — much to the chagrin, one imagines, of Liberals who would rather not have anyone still talking about the two former ministers and everything they have come to represent.

But what might they do if they actually win?

Only in the most improbable scenario would they take part in holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament. And they're likely already discovering the limits of being unaligned. Speaking time in the House of Commons is mostly reserved for members of recognized parties (those with 12 MPs or more). Committee assignments are similarly divided among the parties.

They would still be able to speak, to vote and to introduce private member's bills. They might yet come to stand for bold new policy ideas. Their agitation for democratic reform could help create momentum for some kind of change. But they would still be relegated to a remote corner of the House of Commons, figuratively and literally.

If nothing else, victory would extend their political careers. From there, they might act as prominent and useful counterpoints.

Or they might, eventually, find their way back to a political party, where their political capital and personal abilities might still be put to best use.


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