The House

The House: Liberal caucus – shaken and stirred by SNC-Lavalin crisis?

This week on The House, how badly has the SNC-Lavalin controversy shaken Trudeau and the PMO off their pre-election course? Host David Cochrane talks to a cabinet minister, the Liberal caucus chair and two political strategists about mapping a way forward. Plus: Nurses react to a proposed pharmacare plan, and the NDP's Nathan Cullen on his post-Hill future.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday March 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

One of the many unresolved questions in the SNC-Lavalin controversy involves the future of former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott.

Will they stay in the Liberal caucus, after expressing a lack of confidence in the party's leader, Justin Trudeau?

Cabinet ministers have said it's Trudeau's call, while Trudeau said it's up to the two former ministers.

"That's a question for them," the prime minister said earlier this week. "They've indicated that they still share the values and objectives of this government...but obviously there are going to be reflections and discussions."

It's a decision supported by remaining cabinet ministers, said Minister of Seniors Filomena Tassi in an interview on CBC Radio's The House, airing Saturday.

How badly has the SNC-Lavalin controversy shaken Justin Trudeau and the PMO off their pre-election course? Guest host David Cochrane talks to cabinet minister Filomena Tassi.

"I expect that they both want to stay in caucus...that's really the decision for the Prime Minister to make," she said, adding that the two former ministers "made great contributions" in their portfolios. 

Tassi added that the controversy is one that is open to multiple interpretations. 

"I believe that Jody Wilson-Raybould believes the testimony she gave, and I believe the Prime Minister is honest and earnest in his statements."

So what does the Liberal caucus think should be done? According to caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia, the majority of Liberal MPs support Wilson-Raybould and Philpott in remaining part of the team.

"I think the general consensus based on the conversations I've had is that they're welcome to stay if that's what they wish to do," Scarpaleggia told David Cochrane in a separate interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House

One of the unresolved questions in the SNC Lavalin controversy involves the future of Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould as Liberal MPs. They quit the cabinet expressing a lack of confidence in the prime minister, so how is caucus responding? Liberal Chair Francis Scarpaleggia joins us.

He said that any awkwardness or trust issues between Wilson-Raybould and Philpott and the rest of caucus won't last. 

"I think with time, any wounds will heal," he said. "I don't see that there's a problem in terms of trust. Maybe some people feel that way. Of course, people were saddened and maybe a bit hurt at the beginning when two excellent ministers decided to leave cabinet, but life goes on."

And so do politics, according to Scarpaleggia.

"There's a general feeling that it's time to move on. If there's frustration at the moment, it's members wanting to move on."

Former ministers Jane Philpott, left, and Jody Wilson Raybould have both resigned from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin controversy, citing a lack of confidence in the prime minister. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In a separate interview on the show, political strategists Jaime Watt and Greg MacEachern agreed that the caucus has some power to flex when it comes to moving past the scandal. 

"It's not just the prime minister who gets to decide who stays in caucus. Caucus gets to decide," said Watt, a specialist in crisis communications and the executive chairman of Navigator. "Politics is a team sport and caucuses are like locker rooms. It's where they gather and get ready to go out and take on the other side."

For MacEachern, caucus is "the front line, the ambassadors" and their feelings on Wilson-Raybould and Philpott carry serious weight. 

So can the two former ministers stay Liberal MPs?

"To sit in a caucus, you have to believe three things," said Watt. "You have to believe in the party. Two, you have to believe in the manifesto that that particular government ran on. And the third thing is you have to have confidence in your leader. It's very unusual for two people to continue to sit in the caucus after they've expressly said they don't have that confidence."

MacEachern's advice for the government going forward is for Trudeau to include caucus in any kind of resolution. 

"They have to feel important and that they have a stake. I think the Prime Minister's Office has to be run a little differently," he said. 

We ask political strategists Greg MacEachern and Jaime Watt about the impact SNC-Lavalin is having on the Liberals and Conservatives.

When can we expect a national pharmacare program?

The "missing piece" in Canada's universal health-care system — a national pharmacare program, according to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor — is in the works, and Canadian nurses report feeling encouraged by the government's steps.

"This is a giant step towards the right direction," said pharmacare advocate and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions Linda Silas in an interview on CBC Radio's The House, airing Saturday.

"That said, I still want to see [the report] in black and white."

An interim report from the Liberal government's advisory council on the implementation of national pharmacare was released Wednesday. The report recommends creating a new national arm's-length agency to manage prescription medications, including negotiating prices and creating a formulary of approved, covered drugs. 

Silas applauded the recommendation for an arm's-length agency.

"It should not be a politician, it should not be an advocate like myself who starts lobbying," she told host David Cochrane. "It needs to be an arm's-length group of experts, based ont he science, so they can decide what gets on the list. Not lobbyists or political pressure."

Canadians are currently covered by a patchwork of public and private drug plans, but an estimated 20 per cent (as many as 7.5 million people) report they pay out of pocket for their prescriptions. 

The advisory council, headed by former Ontario health minister Dr. Eric Hoskins, has received more than 150 written submissions and 15,000 online questionnaire responses. Their final report is due this spring.

Left to right: Bill Morneau, minister of Finance, Dr. Eric Hoskins, chair of the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, federal minister of health, attend a press conference on the national pharmacare program at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute in Toronto on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Silas doesn't expect quick implementation of such a program, but said she is confident national pharmacare will be an election issue this year. 

"It has to be an election issue. It will take a year, two years to the promises that the federal political parties will be making are those we will be voting on, and they need to be clear."

With the government's federal budget coming up on March 19, Silas is also seeking clarity in Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget on some of the other issues involved in starting a national pharmacare program.

"We're hoping [to see] an expanded mandate for the advisory council, more consultation with big pharma, and insurance companies and [provincial] governments. All of that will have to be done, and probably better done by experts than by politicians."

At the presentation of the advisory council's eight-page interim report in Toronto, Morneau stayed mum on whether pharmacare would figure into his upcoming budget, but admitted the costs of pharmaceuticals in Canada is "staggering" — pegging the "collective" price paid across the country at $34 billion in 2018. 

That's no surprise to Silas, who represents nearly 200,000 nurses and student nurses. 

"We know we need it," she said. "The numbers are clear. A single-payer, universal system works better, it's more efficient and costs less."

The "missing piece" in Canada's universal health-care system - a national pharmacare program, according to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor - is in the works, and Canadian nurses report feeling encouraged by the government's steps. We talk to the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions about the change.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen not ruling out a provincial run in B.C.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen speaks with the media following Question period Friday June 3, 2016 in Ottawa. Cullen is apologizing after the NDP MP weighed in on the debate around the Trudeau government's decision to force groups applying for summer-job grants to affirm their respect for a woman's right to have an abortion. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Longtime NDP MP Nathan Cullen says he is taking advice from the late NDP leader Jack Layton in not ruling out a run at a provincial seat after he leaves federal politics before the fall federal election.

"Never say never, Jack Layton told me, so that's what I'm saying," Cullen said in an interview airing Saturday on The House.

"It's in my blood, man. I think it's always been there and these last 15 years [in federal politics] have only confirmed that I love it."

And while B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan might welcome a seasoned player like Cullen to his caucus, the high-profile parliamentarian said he is looking forward to taking a break before making up his mind about wading back into politics.

"I won't speak for the premier. I do think that I need a break from what I've been doing," he said. "Maybe one day. But I haven't made any plans and I haven't made any promises, nor have any promises been made to me."

On March 1, Cullen announced that he wouldn't run for re-election this fall — adding his name to a growing list of NDP MPs who have resigned or say they will not be running again.

In his interview with The House, Cullen — who was first elected in 2004 — told host David Cochrane the time was right to step down.

"My kids are eight ... and it's a 30-hour commute every week [to Ottawa]," he said. His northern B.C. riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley borders Alaska and Yukon.

"It's stunning, and I've never ever wanted to complain about it," he said. "Representing a place that is that big and diverse is a challenge, but it's what I signed up for and I love it.

"It's a question of sustainability and making sure you're doing right by your family. I came in with my family, my physical health and my integrity, and the plan was always to leave with those three things intact as well."

Cullen also discussed a trend he said he's noticed during his tenure as an MP.

"I think Canadians seem to have a willingness to change their moods and attitudes towards who they want to elect on a more frequent basis," he said.

Whether that means a switch from a Liberal government to an NDP one remains to be seen, but Cullen for one is optimistic as he prepares to leave the party he's represented for a decade and a half.

NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh walks with NDP MP Nathan Cullen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The Veteran New Democrat MP is throwing his weight behind the leadership bid of upstart candidate Singh, a member of the Ontario legislature. (The Canadian Press)

"I think there's nothing but opportunity actually for the party," he said. "Politically, the circumstances are looking up. I don't think Mr. Scheer has fully connected yet with Canadians, and I think Mr. Trudeau obviously is having some fair and serious difficulties of his own."

Cullen admitted that puts some pressure on NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who won his first seat in the House of Commons in a byelection Feb. 25.

"If Mr. Singh is able to redefine himself, because I think the first year – as he admits – wasn't as good as he wanted it to be, now he has this opportunity. It's a short runway but it's one I've seen people land before."

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh celebrates his Burnaby-South byelection win in Burnaby, B.C., Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Focusing specifically on Quebec, a province the NDP dominated in the 2011 federal election in what was known as the 'Orange Wave', Cullen said he's not placing any bets.

"I think essentially Quebec is up for grabs," he said. "I think you're going to be looking at a lot of three, four, five-way races.

"I think the expectation of Jagmeet has been lowered. I think his possibility to rise above that is almost guaranteed, and just how far above it he goes is really the question for me."

Nathan Cullen is a familiar and outspoken voice on Parliament Hill, but the longtime MP is just the latest New Democrat to announce that he is bowing out before the next election. Just because he's leaving federal politics, does that mean Nathan Cullen is leaving politics entirely? David Cochrane asks.


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