OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau promised to empower his backbenchers and increasingly, the Liberal MPs seem to be taking the prime minister at his word.
Twice on the same day late last month, dozens of them joined forces with opposition MPs to give second reading approval to private members' bills which the government clearly opposed.
A bill from Liberal MP Bryan May, of Cambridge, Ont., to offer a non-refundable tax credit of 15 per cent to anyone who takes an accredited first aid course passed easily by a vote of 227 to 81.
Similarly, a bill from his colleague Mark Gerretsen, of Kingston, Ont., to allow women in dangerous jobs to take their EI maternity benefits earlier in their pregnancy passed by a vote of 231 to 78.
Liberal Members of Parliament Mark Gerretsen (left) and Bryan May have both introduced bills that their own party chose not to support.
It was the first time more than a handful of Liberal backbenchers have gone their own way on any bill, even though Trudeau has promised to allow more free votes.
The show of independence — or perhaps defiance — came despite the recommendation of Trudeau's cabinet that both bills be defeated.
'Government position: against'
The "bill kits'' that had been circulated privately to Liberal MPs to explain the bills, and the government's position on them, were unambiguous.
"The cabinet will not be supporting Bill C-240,'' says the kit on May's bill, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
While the goal of the proposed legislation is laudable, the kit added: "The bill is inconsistent with the government's stated policy objective of tax system simplicity and efficiency.''
Similarly, the kit on Gerretsen's bill said the government supports the intent of the legislation but argued that any change to maternity benefits should wait for the conclusion of recently launched consultations on more flexible maternity, parental and caregiving benefits and leave provisions.
"There are advantages and efficiencies to preparing policy proposals and legislative change regarding more flexible EI maternity and parental benefits and leave at the same time,'' it says.
"Co-ordinating the work on these elements would enable consultations on these issues jointly and reduce the need to engage the same sets of stakeholders multiple times and on related issues.''
A voting sheet circulated by the whip's office to all Liberal MPs on Oct. 26, the day of the votes, was similarly clear about both bills: "government position: against.''
"You can vote against the government and that's okay... The sky didn't fall.''
Despite the government's clear preference, private members' bills are traditionally free votes, without backbenchers being required to toe the party line. And on these two bills, most Liberal MPs chose to ignore the government's position.
"We feel quite comfortable in our party that you can vote against the government and that's okay,'' May said in an interview later.
"The sky didn't fall.''
During last year's election, Trudeau promised to loosen oppressive party discipline, allowing MPs to, as he put it, represent their constituents in Ottawa rather than having to represent Ottawa to their constituents.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference, in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
To that end, he said Liberal MPs would be required to support the government only on budget or money bills, legislation to implement promises from the campaign platform on which they were elected and bills involving fundamental charter rights.
Yet until now, few backbenchers have taken advantage of their newfound freedom to vote as they please on many bills.
Last May, for instance, just four Liberals — including David Lametti, parliamentary secretary for international trade — voted against the government's controversial, restrictive bill on medically assisted dying at third reading, which was ostensibly put to a free vote.
"I think some people are nervous (about the bill), but they are really good team players and they want to play on the same team and play nice,'' Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, one of the four dissenters, said ahead of the vote.
"A free vote is a free vote. It's not just lip service."
Now, with a year under their belts, backbenchers seem emboldened.
May suggested that experience breeds confidence.
Still, he cautioned against reading too much into the show of independence on his and Gerretsen's bills.
Backbenchers, he argued, are simply doing what Trudeau encouraged them to do: using their own judgment.
"A free vote is a free vote. It's not just lip service,'' May said. "We've got to show that the changes (to empower MPs) are legitimate changes.''