The Joël Lightbound crisis in the Liberal Party

Paul Wells: The MP’s astonishing criticism of Liberal policy on COVID restrictions is the most serious threat to Trudeau’s leadership since Jane Philpott quit the federal cabinet
Lightbound speaks about COVID restrictions during a news conference on Feb. 8, 2022 in Ottawa (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Liberal MP for Louis-Hebert Joel Lightbound speaks about Covid restrictions during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Here’s Dillon McGuire, Operations and Tour Assistant to the Minister of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion (that’s Ahmed Hussen, I learn), calling for Joël Lightbound to be removed from the Liberal caucus “as swiftly as possible.” I haven’t met McGuire and my interactions with Lightbound have been limited, but the young staffer’s tweet hints at the very large difficulty Lightbound now presents to the Liberal Party of Canada.

You’re forgiven for not knowing Lightbound. He’s the Liberal MP for the Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert, and his astonishing Tuesday-morning news conference was a detailed prosecution, not only of Liberal policy on COVID-related restrictions, but of the Liberal manner of governing over at least the last several months. “I think it’s time we stop dividing the population,” he said. And, “Not everyone can earn a living on a MacBook at a cottage.” I mean, he’s criticizing the government’s timetable on health-care transfers. Whatever a backbench MP’s knitting is supposed to be these days, Lightbound is spectacularly not sticking to it.

And all of this is happening while a bunch of truckers and “truckers,” some fraction of whom hold pestilential views and some of whom control immovable and potentially unstoppable concentrations of rolling metal, continue to occupy downtown Ottawa. Which is also part of Dillon McGuire’s point. Lightbound will be accused, is already being accused, of advocating surrender to blackmail.

I’m torn here. On one hand, it was disappointing that so many questions at Lightbound’s news conference were about the very caucus politics I lead with here, instead of about the substance of his argument. On the other hand, I do believe Lightbound’s sortie today constitutes the most serious threat to Justin Trudeau’s leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada since Jane Philpott quit the federal cabinet.

So, as I say, torn.

A few things about Lightbound. He’s not super-likeable, in the way smart guys can sometimes be a bit much. He’s chippy and has no discernible sense of humour. Honestly I am pleased when anyone in this city shows any personality, so do not take this as a criticism.

Today is apparently his 34th birthday.

He won the National Laskin Moot as a student at McGill Law, which is even bigger than being on the McGill debating team and suggests Lightbound is a dangerous guy to get caught in a debate with. He became a lawyer at Fasken in Montreal, which suggests a good start on a life of hard work and ever-increasing financial reward, before he ran for the Liberals in 2015 in Louis-Hébert, a riding that’s been held by four different parties since 2006. Conservative, Bloc, NDP, Liberal. That’s a significant part of the day’s puzzle.


So’s this. At home, Lightbound gets coverage like this—wunderkind sacrificing the gravy train for a chance to make a difference. And indeed, in the first year of this government, it was not uncommon to hear Lightbound mentioned around Ottawa as one of the Liberals’ brightest talents. But he hasn’t clicked. He was parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance before the election. Just about every other person in that hard job has been promoted to cabinet: François-Philippe Champagne, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Sean Fraser. Lightbound, instead, was dumped from his parliamentary-secretary job after the 2021 election. [UPDATE: I’m told, by somebody outside his office, that he asked to be relieved of that gig after the election. – pw] He’s the chair of the Industry Committee, which isn’t nothing. But all of this suggests uncommon ambition thwarted.

Two more data points. After six years in Parliament, he’s eligible for a full pension, as some people were pointing out on Twitter today. And while he’s been winning lately by 11- and 12-point margins, Quebec City is a strange bubble, a place with a distinctive centre-right political culture that makes it Quebec’s current capital of frustration with restrictions and mandates, which means Lightbound will have been hearing a lot about those restrictions from constituents with a documented history of partisan fickleness.

This adds up to Lightbound as a mix of real smarts under real pressure with a strong feeling of nothing to lose. It’s funny how the nines and 10s are so often the ones to snap around here.

On the substance of the argument, I think he’s right that the government would have a hard time defending each of its policy decisions in turn, which is one reason the government never comes anywhere close to bothering to try. (Another reason is that this government is simply incompetent at making any coherent argument. I mean, it’s breathtaking. This comes from the top.) There’s a line in Lightbound’s prepared remarks about wishing for evidence instead of talking points. That’s the sort of thing music collectors call a “deep cut.”

The bit about how we’re in the middle of a crisis—about how everyone should just hold the line until the truckers and “truckers” and many well-meaning protesters and small cohort of serious troublemakers simply leave town—I have a lot of sympathy for that argument. I’m not big on rewarding convoys when making policy decisions. I was appalled last week when Quebec Premier François Legault mentioned truckers and “truckers” among his reasons for dropping a no-vax tax that could not have been implemented anyway. Way to ensure that anyone with access to some trucks will use them in any policy dispute forevermore. So I don’t want to dismiss that real concern.

But if you can’t defend your policy, it doesn’t much help if you ball up your fists and demand that everyone be a team player. If you can defend your policy, great: defend it. Lightbound’s broader argument—that this government has been leaning way too hard on “get with the program” as an argument for way too long—is not only reasonable, it’s obvious to anyone who can see. Including many Liberals of my acquaintance.

The truckers vs the lockdown is a perfect illustration of a central characteristic of the Trudeau government and, I might as well say it, of Justin Trudeau: the strong belief that there will be a perfect time to make a decision later, after the crisis is over. The early-2020 “build back better” rhetoric amounted to a hope that, after the icky virus went away, Canada could get back to building light rail, which sometimes seems to be the only thing that excites this gang. The nasty political sideswipe from the collapse of Kabul in the first week of the 2021 election campaign was similar: How dare there be a mess when he was trying to build the future? Everyone in Ottawa can list a dozen decisions that are way overdue, and the reason they’ve heard for the delay is some variation on, “Not yet. The time’s not right yet.”

But here’s the thing. The time’s never right. The crisis is the job. I’m not sure how “issues management” came to be synonymous with “making issues go away so we can do what we want.” What it could mean is, manage the issue. Canadians are less and less sure the way they are governed makes any sense. That is true whether there are trucks or not. So manage that issue.