Victory has a thousand fathers, the late president John F. Kennedy famously said, but defeat is an orphan.
While this is an apt description of the loneliness at the bottom of the political heap, it is also true that loss, scandal and controversy can be team sports too.
For Justin Trudeau, the SNC-Lavalin saga of 2019 was one of his biggest setbacks of his time in power and a new book out this week shines some light on how this prime minister’s team-management skills — or lack of them — were at the root of the trouble all around.
Whipped, by Alex Marland, one of Canada’s leading political scientists, is a sweeping, inside look into the labyrinth of party discipline in Canada, where political careers are made and broken.
It includes a chapter on the SNC-Lavalin affair, including interviews with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, the two ministers whose cabinet careers rose and fell with Trudeau and SNC.
The reflections by Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, as well as interviews with their former caucus colleagues, show just how much the SNC episode rattled the entire Liberal team and how the discipline meted out to these two women was a group effort — not just administered by the PMO.
“It was a very frustrating time,” Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon is quoted as saying in the book. “Many members of the caucus and the party at large disagreed with Jody Wilson-Raybould. They felt the team was let down and there was a fundamental breach in solidarity.”
“People who are loyal to the party were absolutely furious and hurt that some new Liberals jeopardized what we worked so hard for,” another Liberal MP from Quebec, Alexandra Mendes, told Marland.
Philpott and Wilson-Raybould describe in the book what it feels like to fall from grace with the entire political team, not just the PMO.
“Colleagues stopped phoning them and avoided eye contact. Some ministers passing through the West Block turned around on spotting them and walked the other way,” the book recounts of this horrible Liberal winter and spring of 2019.
“Perhaps the most painful of all was the political staff with whom I worked on projects that were deeply important to me,” Philpott says. “After everything happened, several staff from that minister’s office stopped looking at me in the eye. They wouldn’t speak to me.”
Marland writes of how this collective opinion within Liberal ranks did not exactly line up with the story outside Ottawa, which pitted the two ministers as heroes against a domineering PM. Falling out with Trudeau was one thing, the book notes, but the real tumble was prompted by caucus unrest against the two ex-ministers. It was only when they lost the team’s trust that they were ejected from Liberal caucus — many weeks after each left cabinet.
“Those Liberals exasperated dealing with an unconventional teammate held a view different from that of Canadians enamoured with a principled individual with a backbone willing to speak truth to power,” the book states.
But Whipped doesn’t spare Trudeau criticism either, chronicling how an “alarming number” of his own MPs found him unreachable and out of touch with the caucus. The complaints that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott expressed in the height of the SNC-Lavalin crisis — that Trudeau was far too insulated by the tight team around him — were recounted to Marland too during the many interviews he did.
In full disclosure, I should note that I was one of the early reviewers of this book, so my endorsement (as well as comedian Rick Mercer) could appear on the cover. I’ve known Marland and his work for more than a decade and we have collaborated on some published work where our interests intersect. He is an academic constantly blazing new trails in documenting the practical arts of politics.
Whipped may be Marland’s most ambitious work to date, featuring more than 130 in-depth interviews with current and former Canadian politicos, elected and unelected, trying to navigate the murky world of how team culture really works in the corridors of power.
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The SNC episode makes up only one chapter in the book, but it’s an illuminating one, especially since how Trudeau works with his fellow Liberals continues to be a unfolding mystery in this government. These days, it’s being discussed in regard to how the decision was made to contract out pandemic relief to the WE Charity — just who is in the loop in Trudeau’s government and who’s out?
Trudeau wasn’t defeated by the SNC saga, but it did raise enduring questions about how he manages his Liberal cabinet and caucus. The events recounted in Whipped show that setbacks, as well as victories, are a team sport.