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Today Garth Turner became the latest Member of Parliament elected for one party to wind up sitting on the other side of the floor. He’s in good company. The defections of Belinda Stronach, David Emerson and Wajid Khan are still fresh in everyone’s minds, raising the question of whether our system should allow MPs to cross the floor and sit with a party other than the one whose name appeared beside theirs on the ballot. Read on as Torontoist wades into this debate…
It’s always fun to watch when a politician crosses the floor: whatever side is losing a member waves its arms at the injustice, the thwarting of democracy, the cynical self-interest that motivated the move, and whatever side is gaining the member welcomes the new MP with open arms and speaks about sticking up for ones beliefs and the courage it takes to cross the floor. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals can maintain a consistent position on floor crossing; their point of view depends entirely upon whether they are winning or losing. The NDP are always against floor crossing, of course, but then it’s easy to advocate for abstinence when you can’t get a date.
There’s no doubt that party loyalists have reason to be upset when the drone they thought they were electing suddenly switches sides. Everyone else should take a moment to celebrate the fact that we still elect individuals to the House, and not all-powerful party leaders and mindless worker bees.
Unless you’re an absolute die-hard, chances are that you change your mind from time to time about which party’s policies are best. A party that you once loved can disappoint or outrage you. The same can easily be true for a Member of Parliament, especially a back-bencher with very little say in the direction of a party. If crossing the floor were not allowed, a member in those circumstances would be left with three options: continue to sit with a party but vote against their policies, sit as an independent, or resign and get another mandate. None of these are practical options.
Voting against your party consistently will get you turfed out of caucus quick enough. Sitting as an independent would be great, but independents in our system are at a massive disadvantage. It is very difficult for an independent member to ask questions during Question Period, and they don’t have access to the research staff or infrastructure that party members enjoy. Furthermore, your future as an independent is necessarily limited. An independent can never form government, and never position themselves to have a real say in the way that the country is run.
Running again in a by-election is, at the very least, logistically difficult and probably politically suicidal. First off, the Prime Minister decides when a by-election is held and they have the option of holding the seat open for many months. Next, a member couldn’t really run for the other party in a snap by-election, they probably couldn’t even win a nomination. Without sitting with a party for a while, and getting comfortable with the apparatchiks the members of the new party would have no reason to trust a recent defector; it would be smarter and safer for them just to run whoever they ran in the last election. A member could run as an independent, but we’ve already outlined the problems with being an independent MP in the House, and those problems are multiplied when trying to run without a party machine to back you up.
Certainly there are cases where a floor crossing seems particularly cynical. David Emerson is probably the most outrageous case of this, but the option to cross the floor needs to be kept open. It’s the only way to preserve what little independence our members have against the power of the political party machine.
So Garth finally made up his mind. Of course, in the last while there have been a few high-profile defections of MPs from one party to another – in 2005 Belinda Stronach went from the Conservatives to the Liberals, in 2006 David Emerson was lured in the other direction with the promise of a cabinet seat, and just last month Walid Khan quit the Liberals to celebrate his newfound buddyhood with Stephen Harper. In each case there’s been the predictable public outrage and gnashing of teeth, accompanied by the usual lack of action by Parliamentarians who probably want to keep their own options open.
Any MP who crosses the floor to change parties should be required to resign and call a by-election immediately. Not just because it’s dishonest, although it is. Still, if every politician who said one thing and did another was forced to resign we could tear down the House of Commons and put up a laser tag complex and a couple of Starbucks.
No, the fundamental problem is the massive and cynical nature of the dishonesty. The argument has been made that since the voters elect Members of Parliament because they believe that person will best represent their interests, the party to which the MP belongs is essentially irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a Parliamentary democracy where a majority, or more often, a plurality of votes will create a government, people vote for parties, not candidates. The tendency is to vote strategically for the party that best represents the views of the individual voter, in the hope that they will become the government or at least win enough seats to have influence in the House. What the electorate is almost never doing is voting for the individual candidate based on his or her personal beliefs, which are generally unknown anyway since candidates are discouraged by their leadership from expressing dissenting views publicly.
The floor-crosser also betrays the many volunteer workers and party loyalists who have supported the campaign with their money and time, and would have done so regardless of the candidate. All these people have invested in a candidate who has claimed to support the ideals of their chosen party, and then turned around and unhesitatingly adopted an altogether different set of views.
And for what? A cabinet position, maybe, or just the warm glow you get from photo-ops with the PM. Certainly not for the benefit of the riding or the nation. The reasons are invariably self-serving and career minded, and have nothing to do with sudden political epiphanies or a desire to better serve their constituency.
The most compelling reason for holding a by-election is that aside from cost and inconvenience – a small price to pay for maintaining a semblance of democracy – there’s no reason not to. If floor-crossing MPs feel so strongly that they were elected on their own merits and not that of their party, let them put it to the test (to be fair, Stronach proved it can be done when she won as a Liberal in 2006). It should be up to the voters decide which party they want to represent them, not the candidate.