Rookie Liberal MP Willing to Challenge Party Line

Ouellette grills finance minister over oil and gas, says constituents come first
February 24, 2016 Updated: February 27, 2016


OTTAWA—Finance Minister Bill Morneau likely didn’t expect a member of his own Liberal caucus to try to corner him the way Robert-Falcon Ouellette did at the finance committee on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Ouellette told Epoch Time he was just doing his job. It’s a job many MPs have struggled with—balancing internal party politics with the demands of their constituents.

It was Morneau’s first appearance before the committee and he took tough, if predictable, questions from opposition MPs. He also took the expected softballs from his fellow Liberals, giving him a chance to tout his party’s platform and pending budget.

But Ouellette broke ranks, so to speak, using his exchange to publicly grill the minister over subsidies to oil and gas.

It was an exchange that only happened because Morneau, in an unusual turn, granted the committee extra time so Conservative MP Ron Liepert and Ouellette could each question him.

Ouellette started with a sweeping question about the impact of federal underfunding and ignorance on the lives of indigenous Canadians.

Then he tried to back the minister into a corner over whether the government would cut subsidies on oil and gas, a commitment made at the G20 by the previous Conservative government.

Morneau dodged the question the first time around, pointing to the Liberal’s commitment to work with the provinces and build a greener economy.

Ouellette followed up.

“So does that mean we’re still continuing with the subsidies toward the liquefied natural gas subsidy of $2 billion on capital costs that will only create around 800 permanent jobs?”

Again, Morneau sidestepped the question.

“What I can tell you is that, as I mentioned yesterday, we’re moving forward with our budget on March 22,” he answered. “I’m not yet at a place where we’ve written every aspect of that budget, and there are certain details that won’t be available until then.”

That’s when the chair cut off any further questions and let Morneau continue on with his day.

It’s unlikely Morneau wants to tackle oil and gas subsidies with oil at $30 a barrel and Alberta facing unemployment over 7 percent. Avoiding the question was probably the safest bet.

Ouellette told reporters later that he was glad Morneau came to the committee, but added that he hoped the minister will stay focused on the pledges made in the party platform, including on oil and gas as well as indigenous issues.

‘That’s who I am’

Ouellette was seen as a contender for cabinet himself, his name thrown around as a possibility for the minister of indigenous and northern affairs file, a post that went to Toronto–St. Paul’s MP Carolyn Bennett.

Ouellette said at the time that he would like to have made cabinet but would now have the freedom to do other things. That apparently includes grilling his own minister.

“That’s who I am. I am not in government,” he told Epoch Times.

Ouellette said he is accountable to his constituents.

“I don’t believe I am beholden to the prime minister in how I conduct myself.”

Hearings like the one on Tuesday are to give Parliament a chance to scrutinize the government. Ouellette said it is an opportunity to get answers and push the minister in a certain direction or to start considering different views.

And he isn’t apologetic about giving his minister something to think about.

In theory, there’s nothing exceptional in that. Parliament’s role is to pass laws and hold the government to account. But for most MPs who are members of the ruling party, that largely means closing the blinds on issues the government doesn’t want scrutinized.

Even opposition MPs struggle when their personal views, or the views of their constituents, clash with the overall direction of the party.

For some—like Liberal Larry Bagnell, the popular Yukon MP who lost his seat in 2011 after being whipped to vote in favour of the long gun registry—it can cost them their jobs.

In Bagnell’s case, the story has a happy ending. He retook his riding in the last election. For many others, it means leaving politics feeling frustrated at missed opportunities.

Frustrated MPs

The Samara Canada found in exit interviews of MPs that their biggest frustrations in Ottawa did not come from bureaucrats or opposing MPs.

“The greatest frustrations they faced during their political careers came from within their own political party,” the institute’s report reads.

“Time after time the MPs articulated how decisions from their parties’ leadership were often viewed as opaque, arbitrary, and even unprofessional, and how their parties’ demands often ran counter to the MPs’ desires to practice politics in a constructive way.”

For those like Ouellette, breaking ranks comes with a cost. Many see cabinet posts contingent on being a team player. It can also lead to being ostracized within your own party.

But it also comes with a certain respect.

Brent Rathgeber was roundly praised when he chose to leave the Conservative party in 2013 rather than accept the neutering of his private member’s bill on public disclosures.

Unfortunately, being a great MP is not enough to get elected. Rathgeber discovered this during the last election. He had a solid campaign, good fundraising, and plenty of time to door-knock, but was roundly defeated.

The fact is, people don’t usually vote for an MP. They vote for a prime minister and a party. No wonder then that parties would expect their MPs to toe the line. 

The problem, of course, is voters don’t like the current state of politics and hold politicians in low regard. Independent voices like Ouellette could help turn that around.