WHETHER you believe former federal Treasury Board president Scott Brison left on his own accord last week, as he claimed, or was pushed out by a ruthless Liberal party brass, it’s never a good sign when senior cabinet members bail in an election year.

There are two takes on Brison’s unexpected departure. We could take him at his word: that he’s leaving politics to spend more time with his family. Call us cynical, but that is an all-too familiar refrain by politicians who appear to be getting out while the getting is good. Did Brison just notice he has a family? Hardly.

The second theory is that Liberal operators wanted Brison gone because the Crown has named him as a witness in the politically-charged prosecution of suspended Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. Norman has been charged with breach of trust for allegedly leaking cabinet secrets in regard to a lucrative ship-building contract. His trial is set for August; the federal election is in October.

Nothing has been proven in court, and Brison has denied his upcoming role as a witness in the trial has anything to do with his decision to leave politics.

Either way, Brison is out of the picture. The Liberals are going to be without an Atlantic Canada stalwart and proven campaigner in what is sure to be a very tough election campaign.

Though the circumstances are not the same, Brison’s sudden exit recalls the equally unexpected departure in 2015 of former Conservative federal cabinet minister John Baird. Baird, who was a star in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, reportedly stunned Harper when he announced he was leaving for a career in the private sector (another familiar refrain) while a crucial election was in the offing.

When senior ministers appear to leave in a lurch, political leaders try to put on a brave public face, wishing them well and feigning to understand the need to explore new horizons, and so on.

Privately, it’s seen as a huge blow. Baird’s exit was a very bad omen indeed. In the fall of that year, Harper’s Conservatives went down in defeat to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

Did Baird know something that Harper didn’t — that the Conservatives were doomed from the start? When they’re out and about in their ridings talking to average folks, MPs often sense things that their leaders, surrounded by handlers, do not.

In Ontario, former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne endured what seemed like an avalanche of resignations by her fellow Grit MPPs in the leadup to last June’s provincial election.

It was a disconcerting trend laden in portent; in the election, the Liberals were annihilated, reduced to a rump.

Suspicions of political intrigue aside, Brison was undeniably a key member of Trudeau’s cabinet. His replacement at Treasury Board is expected to be announced today as part of an overall cabinet shuffle triggered by his exit.

The trouble with high-profile resignations, whatever the root cause, is that they will inevitably cause other ministers to mull their options as well. One thing’s for sure: Trudeau’s popularity is waning.

With an election just 10 months away, the Liberals can’t afford another big player to follow Brison’s lead. But in politics, the next catastrophe is just around the corner.

(Originally published Jan. 14, 2019)

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