In the early years of Confederation, there were members of Parliament known as “loose fish,” who floated free from parties but swam back and forth between allegiances.
In 1945, a cohort of Quebec Liberal MPs ran as Independents to protest prime minister Mackenzie King’s unpopular policy of conscription.
But being an Independent has never been easy. At least 93 MPs have sat solo in the House of Commons, but the vast majority were originally party members. Few have won elections as Independent candidates and even fewer wielded any power.
The most successful solitary legislators have been those capable of capturing public attention, since actually establishing policy is near impossible, said John English, founding director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. But this isn’t necessarily bad news for Jody Wilson-Raybould, the latest MP to sit as an Independent in the Commons.
Thank you Vancouver Granville for re-electing me as your Member of Parliament. It has been and will continue to be a great honour to serve you.
— Jody Wilson-Raybould 王州迪 Vancouver Granville (@Puglaas) October 22, 2019
“Now in the age of social media, you have more ways you can amplify your voice. Secondly, if you have an established reputation, as Wilson-Raybould certainly has, she will attract attention,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould, who was ousted from the Liberal caucus amid the SNC-Lavalin scandal, recaptured her riding of Vancouver Granville as an Independent in Monday’s federal election. She has cited electoral reform and Indigenous reconciliation as priorities and promised to “do politics differently.”
However, there’s no doubt she faces hurdles as an Independent MP. They are banished to a back corner of the House of Commons and rarely called upon during question period. They lack the money and infrastructure that parties provide and can’t sit on committees, where the majority of the work gets done.
Wilson-Raybould did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday but in an interview before the election she listed a few ways she believed she could reach her goals in Parliament. She said she would participate in a lottery for private members to introduce bills and work with other MPs on their bills.
She also said she’d support progressive legislation and attempt to improve or oppose bills that aren’t strong enough.
“I believe that it is important that we look at the nature of politics and how decisions are made,” she said. “I think that members of Parliament should not be responsible to the prime minister or their party leader or unelected people in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
English said he’s curious to see whether Wilson-Raybould ultimately ends up rejoining the Liberals, perhaps after Justin Trudeau’s tenure as leader ends, or whether she replaces Elizabeth May as head of the Green party in the future.
It’s not unheard of for Independents to find their way back to parties, he noted, as in the case of former Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey, who was booted from the Conservatives in 2007 then ran successfully as an Independent in 2008. He resigned amid health issues the next year and won as a Liberal in 2015.
At least one Independent has wielded influence in a minority government, pointed out Sanjay Jeram, a senior political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University.
Chuck Cadman, a Canadian Alliance MP from Surrey, B.C., lost a nomination challenge for the merged Conservative party in 2004 but successfully ran as an Independent. He then held significant power in the Liberal minority government and his vote in favour of the 2005 budget saved Paul Martin from defeat.
“The stars had to align for him to matter,” Jeram added. “It’s not as if he initiated legislation or had any role in development but he just ended up playing a crucial role simply by the mathematical numbers.”
The Liberals won 157 seats in Monday’s election. If their legislation is backed by the NDP, with 24 seats, or the Bloc Quebecois, with 34 seats, a minority government will be viable without Wilson-Raybould’s single vote, Jeram said.
At the same time it appears she’s open to working with the government on bills, so it wouldn’t be surprising if fences were slowly mended between the Liberals and their former justice minister, he added.
“I think the Liberals would be wrong to completely put that off the table, especially when it comes to their Indigenous file,” he said.
Wilson-Raybould still has a high profile and it would be wise for her to use it to draw focus to issues she cares about, Jeram added.
“She’s going to get covered in question period. She’s going to get attention,” he said. “But I doubt that there’s going to be any situation where her one vote becomes critical.”
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press