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National Newswatch

OTTAWA - Newly minted Liberal MPs have passed on their chance to give backbenchers more clout and dilute the powers of their leader.

Under the Reform Act passed by all parties last spring — and supported by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — each party's MPs were supposed to choose at their first caucus meeting after an election whether to adopt rules aimed at rebalancing power between MPs and their leaders.

Among other things, the rules would allow backbenchers to trigger a leadership review and potentially to oust their leader altogether.

But at their first caucus meeting Thursday, Liberal MPs chose unanimously to defer a decision on the rules until party members could weigh in on the matter at a national convention scheduled for late May.

"A number of the elements that were proposed in the Reform Act, in our view, weaken the role of the membership of the party," government House leader Dominic LeBlanc said following the caucus meeting.

"Our leader was not selected simply by a vote in caucus. Our leader was selected by an open, democratic process of members ... and supporters. So we didn't think it was appropriate at the first meeting of a new caucus to do something that would massively change the authority and the leadership that we've vested in the volunteers and the members of our party."

MPs agreed unanimously that such a dramatic change should only be approved by delegates to the next national convention, he added.

The decision to defer the matter came even as Trudeau is promising to empower MPs from all parties, bolster parliamentary committees and reverse the centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office.

The Reform Act was the brainchild of Conservative backbencher Michael Chong, who watered down a number of his original proposals in order to win all-party support, including adding the caucus opt-in provision.

For a caucus that opts in, the act specifies that a leadership review vote can be triggered if 20 per cent or more of a party's MPs request it. A subsequent majority vote by MPs against a leader would be sufficient to force a leadership contest.

The act also gives MPs the power to decide if an errant colleague should be expelled from or readmitted to their caucus, something traditionally the exclusive preserve of the leader.

It weakens a leader's unilateral power to determine who gets to run as a candidate for election. And it gives MPs the power to elect the chair of their caucus and, if necessary, to elect an interim leader.

While Liberal MPs have deferred a final decision on the act to the party convention, LeBlanc made it clear they don't much care for its provisions, some of which he argued aren't applicable to the Liberal caucus. For instance, he noted that Liberal MPs have always elected interim leaders and elected their caucus chairs.

As for expulsions from caucus, LeBlanc referred back to Trudeau's decision last fall to suspend two Liberal MPs who'd been accused of sexual harassment by two female New Democrats. The two men eventually agreed to voluntarily leave caucus permanently after a confidential investigation into the allegations by an independent lawyer.

"Do you want a discussion in a caucus now of 184 people to reflect on what may be personal, sensitive, family matters? That is something that we weren't prepared to decide or vote on now," LeBlanc said.

"I don't know if in all circumstances it would be appropriate or even desirable ... to have a caucus seized of all kinds of this personal and complicated information."

Trudeau and his 183 MPs were largely in a celebratory mood as they gathered for the first time since the Oct. 19 election in the spacious reading room, an illustrious room in Parliament's Centre Block reserved for the governing party's caucus meetings.

The last time Trudeau met his caucus, there were just 34 MPs clustered in a small basement room, far from the eyes of tourists and parliamentary reporters. On Thursday, the vastly increased number of MPs had to run a gauntlet of dozens of reporters and cameras.

"I'm actually looking forward to seeing a way fuller room than I had just a few months ago," Trudeau quipped on his way into the meeting.

In his opening remarks, Trudeau exhorted his MPs to remember one thing as they plunge into their new responsibilities.

"Regardless of the committees you're on, the roles you have, regardless of party demands ... regardless of everything else we do, your one job that you cannot ever forget is to be a strong voice in service of the people who sent you here."

He also reminded them that Canadians expect them to behave in an open, respectful and collegial manner.

The Canadian Press
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