Opinion: Move to run as Independents shows foresight

In the big pre-election picture, the most significant call Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott made on the way to back-to-back news conferences on Monday was to remain in elected politics.

That in itself was the bad news for Justin Trudeau, since most of the votes either of them earns as an Independent candidate in this October’s federal election will likely be at his party’s expense.

In 2015, they entered politics on Trudeau’s coattails, but the travails of the past few months have earned Wilson-Raybould and Philpott a following of their own. At the same time, the prime minister’s coattails have become shorter since the last election.

Given that combination, it will be hard for the Liberals to hang on to Vancouver Granville and harder still to keep the GTA riding of Markham-Stouffville from going back to the Conservatives next fall.

The less bad news for the prime minister is that no other party will get to spend the upcoming campaign parading his two former ministers as exhibit one and two of the deficit between his 2015 sunny ways and the darker days of the Liberal term in office.

And then, in a general election campaign, the voice of Independent candidates rarely resonates loudly beyond the confines of their ridings. That’s because most voters are primarily preoccupied with the battle for government. The focus is almost exclusively on the leaders.

By the same token, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott will not have to spend the campaign implicitly or actively denouncing policies that were crafted when they were at the cabinet table.

The decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline to ensure its expansion comes to mind. So does the broken Liberal promise to reform the voting system.

When all is said and done, both are set to figure a lot more prominently in the campaign narrative of the Green party and the NDP than the ins and outs of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

That alone would have been a good reason for both former ministers to choose, as they did, to run on their own tickets rather than join a different team next fall.

As it also happens, the alternatives to running as Independent candidates that were on offer would have been no more promising for electoral success in the short term and potentially more career-limiting in the long term.

Yes, both former ministers will face prohibitively long re-election odds. The last time a pair of Independent candidates made it to the House of Commons goes back more than a decade.

But joining the Green party – as much of the smart money was on them doing – would have only marginally shortened those odds.

In the last federal election, the Greens finished with 3.4 per cent of the vote in Wilson-Raybould’s Vancouver riding, and with 1.9 per cent against Philpott in Markham-Stouffville.

At the end of the day, their decisions to decline Elizabeth May’s invitations – even as each went out of her way to heap praise on the Green leader on Monday – was more her party’s loss than theirs.

If they beat the odds this fall, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott will retain the seats they currently occupy in the last row of the House of Commons, where they will toil in the relative obscurity that has been and will remain the lot of Independent MPs for the foreseeable future.

In the best-case scenario, they will sit across from a minority government. It is not only third parties that have more clout in a setting where the survival of a government hinges on securing support on the opposition benches. Independent MPs also benefit from the minority dynamics.

And if they lose, they will still have the option of turning their sights to the provincial arena in their respective provinces.

What is certain is that by running as Independents, neither is burning bridges they may want to recross to a position of more influence in the future.

For to this day, and perhaps even more strikingly after Monday’s dual announcements, it is crystal clear that the quarrel that finds Philpott and Wilson-Raybould running from outside the Liberal fold is with the current prime minister and not the party they ran for in 2015.

At her news conference, Philpott called the Liberal platform “awesome.”

That does not mean bad blood, by now, does not flow their way. If Trudeau loses to the Conservatives this fall, there will be no lack of Liberals blaming Wilson-Raybould and Philpott for the party’s return to opposition.

Still, a week is a long time in politics and the Canadian political scene is a fluid one.

It is still possible to imagine a day in the post-Trudeau era when Wilson-Raybould and Philpott could be reincarnated as Liberals and/or as power politicians.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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